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How much do we know about sex in later life?

Couple laughing

Let's talk about sex...

Research tells us that intimacy remains important in later life, but is there enough sexual health care and support available for older people?

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Physical activity is vital in later life to keep us healthy, but what about sex? It’s the most natural expression of affection, but what role does it play in our lives as we get older? How can it help us stay healthy as we age?

Talking about sex

Insights into sexuality in later life were relatively few and far between, particularly of people over the age of 80. That changed in 2015 with the publication of the study ‘Sexual Health and Wellbeing Among Older Men and Women in England’.

Funded by Age UK and authored by Dr. David Lee, then at The University of Manchester’s School of Social Sciences, the study found that more than half (54%) of men, and almost a third of women (31%) over the age of 70 revealed they were still sexually active, with a third of these men and women having sex frequently – ‘frequently’ meaning at least twice a month.

Intimate findings

And while you might assume that people are less comfortable talking about sex as they get older, that wasn’t the case here – of the 7,000 interviewees for the study, only 3% declined to answer questions about their sexual activities and problems.

When the study was first published, Dr. Lee said: “We hope our findings improve public health by countering stereotypes and misconceptions about late-life sexuality, and offer older people a reference against which they may relate their own experiences and expectations.

"Our ongoing research is also highlighting the diversity of late-life sexualities, and trying to impose youthful norms of sexual health on older people would be over-simplistic and even unhelpful.

“It is however important that health professionals act on this and are more open about discussing sexual health with older people – it can’t simply be assumed to be an irrelevance."

Dating in later life

People need closeness and companionship at any time of life. You may have seperated from a partner, be bereaved, or been single for a long time and wanting to meet someone. Information and advice is available here, whether you''re straight, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Sex and wellbeing

Dr. Lee further developed this research last year, co-authoring a study called ‘Let's Talk About Sex – What Do Older Men and Women Say About Their Sexual Relations and Sexual Activities?’ This study featured analysis from the 2012/13 English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which included a comprehensive questionnaire on sexual relationships and activities.

The questionnaires were completed by 7,079 men and women aged 50 to 90+. Given that these respondents were predominantly heterosexual, the study’s conclusion noted that more research is needed to shed light on the experiences of older LGBT people, but suggested “the findings do illustrate a diversity of sexual attitudes, activities and experiences, and identify the ways in which physical and emotional sexual intimacy change as people age into their seventies, eighties and nineties.”

It also stated that “those who appeared to be most happy with their sexual activities positively commented on the quality of their relationships, or how they had adapted to maintain their sexual activity or sexual contact.” It would therefore seem that even in later life, sex remains an important component when it comes to relationships.

Why it’s important to maintain an active sex life

In 2017, The University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and think-tank the International Longevity Centre (ILC-UK) published a report, ‘How Long Will I Love You? Sex and Intimacy in Later Life’ confirming the continued importance of intimacy in later life. One of the more revealing insights was that men over 80 reported they felt a greater degree of obligation to have sex with their partner than at any age between 50-79.

Commenting on the overall findings, Age UK’s clinical lead Lesley Carter said: “It continues to be important to maintain sexual intimacy as we age as it brings with it positive physical and emotional advantages. There are many ways to enjoy intimacy and pleasure and it may be different to what we have experienced before. It can be non-penetrative or involve positions that are more comfortable, or be just about touch and closeness – whatever feels good for you.”

Is there enough advice available?

Despite these findings, the report also suggested that not enough is being done to provide older people with access to good sexual health care and support. On this, Dr. David Lee says: “Health professionals need to proactively engage with older people to better manage problems that impact on both individuals and couples sexual health and function. By normalising conversations around sex and older people, health professionals can help to counter stereotypes and misconceptions around sex in later life, which will ultimately improve public health.”

Questions of intimacy

While sexual desire continues in later life, in practice it may be different to your younger years. It's therefore natural to be uncertain about aspects of it, particularly the best way to discuss certain things with a partner.

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Last updated: Apr 29 2019

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