Here's something to look forward to: a sex life that lasts throughout the last decades of life. Many people want to—and do—remain sexually active into old age, surveys suggest. That's a good thing, since those who have a greater sense of love and intimacy in their lives are less likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who don't, notes prevention guru Dean Ornish of UCSF. Yet, for some folks, sex slips away as the years add up.
"There are realities of aging that can affect sexual function," such as illness and certain medications, says Chicago-based gynecologist Stacy Tessler Lindau. In 2007, research she led found that about half of more than 3,000 sexually active 57-to-85-year-olds reported having at least one bothersome sexual problem. She also found that, for many such problems, physical health was a better barometer of sexual function than age alone.
The key to preserving a pleasurable sex life, in many cases, is to "live healthier so that you can anatomically perform," Ornish says. That includes such lifestyle tweaks as stubbing out the cigarettes, meditating to de-stress, eating a nutritious diet, avoiding heavy alcohol consumption, and exercising regularly to boost energy and blood flow and maintain a healthy weight. Exercise and weight loss have been shown to lessen erectile dysfunction in some men.
Such changes may help mitigate cardiovascular disease and its risk factors, which are strongly linked to erectile dysfunction and which emerging data suggest may be linked to some sexual problems in women, says Robert Kloner, a cardiologist at the University of Southern California. Things like high blood pressure and high cholesterol can hamper blood flow to the genitals that's necessary for physical arousal, says Ornish. None of those factors, Kloner notes, are a requisite part of aging.
If a medical condition or treatment—prostate surgery is a common one—or waning hormones do interfere, a couple's sex life depends on how they cope. "While we can't necessarily protect our bodies from breaking down, we can certainly ward off the sexual impact by maintaining the strength of the relationship," says Sheryl Kingsberg, a psychologist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. Communicating openly about needs and not taking one's partner for granted can help, she adds. Successful older couples often learn to employ more foreplay, oral sex, or just hugging, kissing, or cuddling in lieu of traditional intercourse, says Lindau. "Maintaining an open mind," she says, "is a good way to adapt one's sex life to other issues that might come up with aging."