Sex as a Senior May be Unhealthy for Men, Healthy for Women

Sex as a Senior May be Unhealthy for Men, Healthy for Women
A new study suggests sex may be healthy for her, not so much for him. Photo courtesy

Many seniors worry about their heart health as they age, especially when it comes to sex. A new study has discovered that men may have cause for concern about their sex life as they get older, but women may actually experience health benefits from an active sex life.

The study comes from Hui Liu, associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University, along with other researchers. They published their results in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior September 6th. The researchers sought to discover if sex later in life is beneficial or harmful to heart health, using data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP).

For their study, the researchers looked at data from 2,204 men and women between the ages of 57 and 85. Data came from the year 2005-06 with a follow-up five years later. The researchers looked at heart health data such as hypertension, heart rate, C-reactive protein levels which are linked to inflammation, and cardiovascular events such as heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. They also looked at information about the participants’ sex lives, such as how frequently they participated in sexual activity.

When the researchers crunched all their data, they found that these older men who had sex at least once a week at the beginning of the study were about twice as likely to experience heart problems five years later, compared to their peers who were not sexually active. Not only that, men who rated sex as satisfying or pleasurable also had a greater risk of heart problems five years later. Although the researchers say moderate sex may be a healthy choice for senior men, it seems that being too sexually active could be detrimental to heart health.

The researchers suggest the unhealthy effects of sex as men get older may be related to the strain and demands of maintaining a sexual relationship. The older men may experience more sexual problems and may be becoming more frail, putting them at risk as they try to maintain a sex life that is just too active. The researchers also suggest that sexual medication or supplements, helping older men achieve an erection and participate in sex, may actually have a negative effect on heart health. More research would need to discover if there is actually a link between these erectile dysfunction treatments and heart problems.

As risky as sex may be for older men, their female partners may benefit from the experience. Women in the study who rated sex as satisfying or extremely pleasurable at the beginning of the study actually had a lower risk of hypertension at the five-year follow-up, versus the women who did not feel this way about sex. The researchers suggest that a deep and close relationship has emotional benefits, reducing stress and improving feelings of well-being, which can help lower blood pressure to benefit heart health. Women who rated their sex life as pleasurable are more likely to be in this type of relationship, although men are more likely to receive emotional support whether they are in a good or bad relationship. As well, women release a sexual hormone during sex which could be beneficial for their health, the authors suggest.

The study suggests that as older men maintain an active sex life, their heart health may decline as the women’s heart health improves. However, everyone is different, and it is best if seniors speak to their doctor with any concerns about their sex life. The study authors suggest physicians should talk to their older male patients about the risks of an active sex life, and screen the sexually active older men for cardiovascular problems.

Cardiovascular disease involves blockage of vessels supplying blood to the heart and brain, leading to problems such as a heart attack or stroke. As the number one cause of death around the world, cardiovascular disease killed about 17.5 million people in 2012, equal to 31% of all deaths. Symptoms of a heart attack can include chest pain or discomfort; pain or discomfort in the arms, elbows, left shoulder, back, or jaw; shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; faintness or light-headedness; paleness; a cold sweat; and feeling sick or vomiting. The symptoms can vary between men and women. Symptoms of a stroke can include weakness or numbness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body; dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, and difficulty walking; confusion and difficulty speaking or understanding speech; vision problems in one or both eyes; severe headache; and fainting or becoming unconscious. To reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, doctors usually recommend changing diet and losing weight, participating in an appropriate amount of physical activity, reducing alcohol consumption, and quitting smoking.

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