The most conclusive evidence we have that sex is important in later life comes from the masters of longevity themselves – centenarians.
In a 2009 National Geographic article, Dan Buettner referred to communities that have a high concentration of centenarians as Blue Zones. These refer to Michel Poulain’s – the demographer on the project – habit of using a blue pen to shade the area on a map where centenarians clustered.
So far, Blue Zones have been identified in Okinawa (Japan); Sardinia (Italy); Nicoya (Costa Rica); Icaria (Greece); and in Loma Linda, California (US). In these zones centenarians teach us that sexual activity is a significant part of their life. In some cases, they also had extramarital affairs well into their later years.
When Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin published the Longevity Project, they provided us with our first glimpse into sexual activity and longevity among women. The research, begun by Lewis Terman of Stanford University, California, in 1921, was designed to study clever white kids in California born around 1910. The study continued following them, even after Terman’s death in 1958.
Such studies are not unique. In England there are three, one of which resulted in the Up series of documentary films, directed by Michael Apted. In Terman’s study, one of the interesting and pertinent findings was that women who had a higher frequency of orgasm tended to live longer than their less fulfilled sisters. Unlike most studies – that usually focus solely on men – no data was collected on men.
But a separate study in Caerphilly, South Wales, England, provided evidence for men. George Davey Smith from the Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, and his colleagues interviewed nearly 1,000 men about their sexual activities, which they then followed up on their death records 10 years later.
The authors determined that having more than two orgasms a week reduced their death rate by half, while ejaculating more than 100 times a year increases life expectancy by five to eight years. These observations have been replicated in Sweden and in the US for both men and women. The conclusion is that sex tells the body that it is not quite finished yet.
Sex is an important component of expressing and sharing happiness. But it seems that we are becoming less interested in it
Sex is an important component of expressing and sharing happiness. But it seems that we are becoming less interested in it. A 2010 report – by one of the largest unions in the world (AARP) that focuses on US older adult issues – concluded that among those aged 55 years and older, both the frequency of sexual intercourse and satisfaction were down 10 per cent since 2004. Just over four out of 10 say they are satisfied with their sex lives, down from half in 2004. Dangerously, half of all single and dating males report that they rarely, or not at all, use protection during sex. This rate goes down to 29 per cent for women. It is not surprisingly, therefore, that in the US in 2005, one in four persons with HIV/AIDS was an older adult.
In Malta there was a spike recently in sexually transmitted diseases among adults aged under 35, but no statistics exist for older adults. The other problem of sexual activity among older adults is diminished physical capacity. Although we might think of it as an aspect of getting old, medications are the main cause of problems that affect sexual activity among older adults.
It is surprising, therefore, that the National Institute on Ageing in the US mentions all other factors but leaves out the main one. The other factors the institute mentions are arthritis, chronic pain, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, incontinence, stroke, depression and surgery. Nearly all medications have some negative effects on sexual arousal and activity. Whatever the reasons for this decline, there are many avenues for sexual gratification.
Shifting the aim in lovemaking from lengthy penetration towards exchange of sensuous pleasures is one way to surmount physical incapacity. Other methods include exploring new communication skills, such as responding, so your partner knows what you like. Also, it is important to be gentle with negative feedback.
While fantasies encourage excitement, thinking passion, rather than sex, promotes more intimacy. Constancy is the death of passion. Remember that the largest sex organ in your body is your skin, followed by your brain. However, we still need to move beyond the prejudices.
The 2010 National Sexual Health Policy for the Maltese Islands by the Ministry of Health, the Elderly and Community Care does not even mention older adults. Younger people might find sex among older adults distasteful. But it was best said by Ann Landers: “At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.”
Mario Garrett was born in Cospicua and went to St Paula Technical School before moving to England with his family. He is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.