While women live an average of five years longer than men, our lesser halves have a "sexual life expectancy" that's nearly five years longer than ours, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal. Perhaps it's Mother Nature's way of evening the score—or perhaps it's the pharmaceutical industry's. "Over the decade since Viagra was introduced, we've seen the levels of sexual interest increase noticeably in 55-year-old men, whereas it's stayed the same for women, widening the gender gap," says study author Stacy Lindau, an associate professor of medicine-geriatrics at the University of Chicago. (We could, though, catch up if a Viagra for women eventually hits the marketplace.)
Lindau has published numerous studies on the sex lives of adults up to age 85, finding that health is the biggest factor that determines how long we can expect to have sex and how much we can expect to enjoy it. (More details on the sex revolution in seniors.) Her latest study, she tells me, shows that men who report being in "very good" or "excellent" health can expect to add five to seven years to their sexual life expectancy, while women can add three to six years. That means that while a typical 55-year-old woman can expect to have sex for an additional 11 years, that same 55-year-old who's in excellent health can expect to remain sexually active for up to 17 more years—or through age 72. (That 55-year-old man in excellent health can expect to stay active until 77.)
Of course, these are just averages. There are plenty of folks in their 80s—heck, even 90s—who are still getting it on, as evidenced by the spike in sexually transmitted diseases in the silver-hair set. Through Lindau's research and clinical experience as a gynecologist treating women with sexual disorders, she identified the following four factors that can help you maintain a healthy sex life through the years.
1. Keep your partner healthy. "It appears the most important reason why women aren't sexually active later in life is the health of their partner," says Lindau. (This applies only to heterosexual couples, she adds, since she doesn't have enough data on lesbian couples to draw any conclusion.) The reason is probably mechanics. "Vaginal intercourse is predicated on erectile function," she says, "and men in poorer health tend to have more erectile dysfunction." Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight, and lowering heart disease risk factors, like cholesterol and high blood pressure, can all improve a partner's sexual function. And yours, too, if you're finding that sex, while not impossible, has lost its enjoyment factor.
2. Adopt an "I'm never too old to have sex" attitude. Society still has a bit of a double standard that it's fine for older men to have sex, but not so much for older women. (Are you listening, Hugh Hefner?) "Women internalize those messages and think they shouldn't be having sex," says Lindau. Yet her patients often tell her that while their sex drive has diminished and they no longer initiate sex, they're always glad they had it afterward.
3. Talk about any, ahem, problems. Sure, it's uncomfortable to bring up issues like vaginal dryness and painful intercourse with your doctor, and many doctors don't make it easy to have these conversations. (Here are 6 ways to relieve vaginal dryness and medications that can dampen your sex life.) You might need to switch doctors if that's the case. "Some couples can also benefit from therapy as a way to talk about their issues and know that they're not alone," says Lindau.
4. Use it or lose it. Try to satisfy yourself even if you don't have a partner. "There are some huge benefits to be gained from masturbation," says Lindau. "It reassures women that their mind and body are working together in terms of sexual function, and having an orgasm is the only way to stimulate blood flow to the clitoris and vagina to keep those organs healthy."
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