New studies on the mysterious sex lives of 57-to-85-year-old Americans.
THE MATING GAME
By Regina Nuzzo
Special to The Times
November 17, 2008
Far be it from us to pick nits with billionaire Warren Buffett in these bleak economic times, but perhaps he knows more about finance than he does about sex. “It’s nice to have a lot of money, but you know, you don’t want to keep it around forever,” Buffett, worth $62 billion at age 78, told Bloomberg News recently. “Otherwise it’s a little like saving sex for your old age.”
His compatriots might disagree.
Nearly 40% of Buffett’s peers — American men between 75 and 85 years old — are sexually active, new studies reveal. More than half of those have sex at least twice a month. A quarter do it every week. (Only 17% of women that age are sexually active, but they’re equally busy.) That might be more positive transactions than Wall Street is seeing these days.
For decades, the medical profession politely averted its gaze from such issues as nursing-home libidos and octogenarian onanism. Many doctors — not to mention patients themselves — assumed that sex must simply fade away quietly over time and, really, who would miss it?
But now the study of aging and sexuality is gaining interest. (Perhaps those sexually pioneering youths from the ’60s, now nearing retirement themselves, have something to do with that?) And the resulting research reveals surprising news: Age itself does not limit our desire and prowess in bed. Rather, the blame goes to aging-related issues — health problems, medication side effects and a lack of steady partners.
If we manage to stay happy, healthy and socially connected as we get older — a tall order but not impossible — chances are good that we can continue to enjoy sex as long as we desire.
Depending on your preferences, that might be a long time indeed. “The oldest person that I ever referred for a penile prosthesis was 98,” says Dr. John Morley, geriatrics professor at St. Louis University. “He used it until he was 101, very happily. Our desire to have sex does not have an expiration date.”
Our bodies’ shelf life keeps extending too. Thirty years ago, medical practice considered people in their 60s to be “old,” Morley says. That’s almost laughable in geriatrics sex clinics these days. “I never see anyone who’s under 70,” he says, “and most of the patients I see are 80 and 90.”
Thank modern medicine and nutrition. In 1900, the average life expectancy was 47 years. Now it’s 75 years for men and 80 years for women. Today’s 65-year-olds can expect to live another two decades or so. And it makes sense that we would want to while away some of those extra hours with sex, especially after former libido-busters — stressful jobs, crying kids, pregnancy worries — have blissfully disappeared.
But if doctors are going to help us keep our sexuality in good shape, they need to know exactly what we’re doing in the bedroom — and how aging and illness change the picture.
“Until recently, we had very little work done on people after fertility,” says Edward Laumann, sociology professor at the University of Chicago and sociology of sex researcher.
That’s quickly changing. In 2004, Laumann and other University of Chicago researchers from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project set out to study the sex lives of “older adults” in the U.S., which they defined as those between the ages of 57 and 85.
Researchers sat in living rooms across America and delicately asked more than 3,000 men and women about a variety of blush-worthy topics: sexual history, masturbation practices, oral sex preference, sexually transmitted diseases and so forth. The participants were carefully chosen to be balanced by race, age, gender and location. Researchers even drew blood and took fluid samples to draw links between physical and sexual health.
This data set will be mined for nuggets of information and trends for years to come. Two reports have been published already: an overview in the New England Journal of Medicine in August 2007 and an initial examination of sexual problems in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in September.
Here’s a sampling of recent findings on the sex lives of 57- to 85-year-olds:
* About 69% of men and 40% of women have engaged in some form of sexual activity with a partner in the last year. Even after the age of 75, rates don’t plummet: 39% of men and 17% of women remain sexually active.
* The most common reason men and women cite for their lack of sexual activity? Men’s physical health. Other top reasons, mentioned by those without a partner, include lack of interest and not having met “the right person.”
* More than half of sexually active men and women have sex at least twice a month. This rate doesn’t change with age. And nearly a quarter of sexually active 75- to 85-year olds report having sex four times — or more — a month.
* Sex is still at least somewhat important to nearly two-thirds of women and 90% of men. While about 1 in 7 men take a medicine or supplement to help restore sexual function, only 1 in 100 women do so. (No prescription drug is approved specifically for enhancing women’s sexual function.)
* Vaginal intercourse is reportedly the activity of choice for most people most of the time. But oral sex is popular too. In fact, among 75- to 85-year-olds, more than a quarter of men and a third of women say they either gave or received oral sex in the past year. (Rates among the under-75 crowd: More than half for both men and women.)
* About half of men and a quarter of women say they have masturbated in the past year. Those in a relationship and those without a partner tend to masturbate at the same rates.
* The studies did not report on alternative sexual practices, such as use of pornography, anal stimulation or sadomasochistic activities. But this might become a larger focus as geriatrics doctors treat successively more sexually liberal generations, Morley says.
He adds that, although we tend to stick with practices we know work for us, sometimes we’re forced to adapt. As we age and lose our longtime partners, for instance, our new partners are more likely to be chosen based on intellectual and emotional factors than on sexual compatibility. So late-life couples could find themselves struggling to bridge gaps in sexual preferences.
* When researchers controlled for respondents’ physical and mental health status, they found that aging itself didn’t really cause sexual problems — except for erectile strength. After the age of 40, the chances of having erectile problems increase by about 7% every decade. By the time they reach the 75-to-85 age group, more than 40% of men complain of serious erectile problems.
* For women, lack of interest in sex is a common problem (affecting about 45% of them), as is difficulty achieving orgasm (about 35%). But these tend to be lifelong issues; neither increases dramatically with age. Menopause often brings lubrication problems (with chances jumping from 20% to 40%), but increasing age doesn’t bring an increased risk.
* Stressed, depressed or anxious women report less interest and pleasure in sex and more difficulties reaching orgasm. Men in the same mental states also report less interest in sex and more performance anxiety. (Or is it that men and women with sexual problems end up more stressed, depressed and anxious? The study can’t say.) Depression in men is also tied to erectile problems, probably through side effects of antidepressants.
* There is a silver lining to aging: With increasing years, women are less likely to find sex painful, and men are less likely to complain of premature ejaculation.
* Although men are more likely than women to pin their overall happiness on having a good sex life, having poor health cuts a man’s chances of being sexually active by a factor of 5, while similarly poor health cuts a woman’s chances only by a factor of 3.
* For women more than for men, having a steady romantic partner strongly determines the quality of their sex life. Yet women are less likely to be married or in an intimate relationship at any age — and it only gets worse with increasing years. Among 75- to 85-year-olds, for example, nearly 8 in 10 men have a steady partner — but only 4 in 10 women do. (Women tend to outlive men of the same age, and men tend to pair up with younger women.)
Laumann notes that aging men are forced to become a bit more like women in their approach to sex. Because they can no longer rely on their own automatic sexual performance, they find themselves needing to ask more from their partners — more cooperation, patience and skillful stimulation, for instance. Women, in turn, must adopt a more traditionally male approach to dating, Laumann says. With a shortage of available males in their age group, women who want a relationship are forced to more aggressively seek out partners and pursue men outside their usual circles.
* Contracting a sexually transmitted disease even once increases the chances of sexual problems later in life. For a woman, it nearly quadruples her chances of experiencing pain from sex and more than triples her chances of lubrication problems. Similarly, a man will be about 5 1/2 times more likely to find sex not pleasurable. It’s unclear whether STDs themselves cause these problems, or whether some related factor in people’s lifestyle is at work.
* Women who drink alcohol every day report more interest and pleasure in sex than their teetotaling counterparts. (Men showed no such link.)
Again, It’s not clear whether a daily nip of brandy leads to better sex, or whether women who have fewer sexual problems also tend to imbibe more freely.
* Men who have had a sexual encounter with another man are five times as likely to lack interest in sex. Women with same-sex experiences show no such tendency.
* Less than 1% of men and women say they’re in a same-sex relationship. Numbers are likely to grow as society becomes more comfortable with homosexuality, Morley says.
Overall, these results show a huge variability in preferences, Morley points out. “There’s nothing wrong with sex as you get older, but there’s also nothing wrong with not having sex. We don’t become different people when we age. We’re still just trying to do what makes us happy.”
Nuzzo is a freelance writer.