Comedian George Burns once cracked that "sex at age 90 is like trying to shoot pool with a rope." Clearly, he was speaking for his own generation. Today's seniors, their sex lives liberated long ago by one pill and extended indefinitely by another, have every intention of staying in the game. The scope of the sexual shifts launched by Viagra a decade ago—perhaps as monumental as those triggered by the birth control pill—is now becoming apparent. A July study published in the British Medical Journal found that considerably more 70-year-olds are enjoying sex regularly than 30 years ago: 57 percent of men and 52 percent of women today versus 40 percent and 35 percent back then. (And that's before the baby boomers arrive with their outsize expectations.) About one quarter of those ages 75 to 85 are now sexually active, according to recent research from the University of Chicago. "We used to think seniors didn't have sexuality at all," says Helen Fisher, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and author of Why We Love. "Viagra has caused many older people to put sex way up front in their relationships."
That could explain why U.S. sales of the little blue pill and two newer drugs have skyrocketed to more than $1.5 billion—or 19 million prescriptions—a year, causing drug companies to salivate over the possibility—still distant—of a "pink Viagra" for women. Further along in the pipeline: a testosterone gel to reverse libido loss after menopause and a pill that boosts desire by acting on serotonin receptors in the brain.
The merits of staying sexually active through the years are obvious and plentiful: joy and excitement, connectedness, and a host of health benefits. Scientists have shown that having sex regularly boosts the immune system and releases hormones that lower stress levels, improve sleep, and might even hold off wrinkles: A Scottish study found that people who enjoy sex every other day looked about seven to 12 years younger than their peers, on average.
Beyond drugs. But it's also clear that fulfillment depends on far more than pharmaceutical fixes. "Erectile dysfunction drugs are marketed to suggest that older men will get back the kinds of erections they had in their 20s," and that's simply not the case, says Barry McCarthy, a professor of psychology at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of Men's Sexual Health. Clinical trials show that about 65 to 85 percent of men with erectile dysfunction find their problem improves with Viagra or one of the other two ED drugs, Levitra or Cialis. Yet, one third of men responding to a recent Consumer Reports survey said they experienced side effects from the drugs like headaches, heartburn, or, in rarer cases, prolonged painful erections. And men tempted to try drugs just for a little boost will most likely be disappointed at what Viagra can't do. "It's not an aphrodisiac and won't make a man bigger," says Abraham Morgentaler, an associate clinical professor of urology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Viagra Myth. "It also won't make a guy's erection any better if he doesn't have a problem in the first place."
When pills do fix the mechanical problems, reliving the passionate and soul-melding sex of younger days appears possible, too—assuming creativity and commitment. Passionate feelings are certainly more associated with the early throes of love, but researchers now believe they can be stirred in long-married folks, too. The proof lies in brain scans: Stony Brook University researchers recently performed functional magnetic resonance imaging on couples claiming to still be head over heels after 20-plus years of marriage and found remarkable similarities to scans of euphoric young lovers. "They both show substantial increases in those 'excitement' areas of brain that produce dopamine," a brain chemical associated with sexual arousal, winning the lottery, and cocaine highs, says Stony Brook social psychologist Arthur Aron.
Turns out the older set may even have an advantage. Whereas early love activates brain regions thought to be responsible for those can't-stop-thinking-about-you love pangs, more mature passion lights up areas where the "bonding" or "cuddle" hormone oxytocin is active. "Sexual liveliness can be equally strong for both," says Aron, "but long-term love doesn't have the jealousy or obsession that occurs when you've just fallen in love."
No one has yet determined exactly how to light up the brain's passion centers. But research shows that couples feel more attracted to one another after they've engaged in novel, challenging activities—like being tied together in a three-legged race—than after taking part in a routine pleasurable activity like sharing an ice-cream sundae. Fisher says it probably has something to do with challenge that causes a surge in dopamine. Rock climbing isn't necessary; Aron and his wife recently found it quite arousing to go to a bar for the first time in 10 years. "It was challenging for us just to walk in and figure out what to order," he says. Making it a point to celebrate good things together, like job promotions or prestigious awards, also has been shown to fuel passion, probably because of that shared dopamine surge. Practice helps, too. "Any kind of sexual stimulation drives up dopamine in the brain," Fisher explains, "and orgasms release oxytocin to trigger feelings of deep attachment."