To the casual observer of television, movies, or popular magazines, sexuality would seem like the province of the young.
And the first major national study of sex in the U.S., done in the early 1990s, stopped at age 59, as if sexuality did too.
Of course, as any Baby Boomer can now tell you, this isn’t the case. The aging of this cohort, combined with the development of medications to treat sexual problems common among older men, has brought the sexual interests of mature adults into public discourse. Several recent surveys of sexuality at older ages allow researchers to paint a detailed picture of sex at older ages—including attitudes toward sex, motivation to find a partner, sexual behavior, and sexual functioning. Although sexual activity declines and some sexual problems can arise with age, many older adults remain sexually active and satisfied into their 80s.
Two key factors set the course of sexuality over the second half of life: availability of a partner and health. Older men are more likely than older women to have partners and more likely to repartner should they lose one. Women tend to be younger than their partner and tend to live longer. So by ages 75-85, about twice as many men as women have a partner with whom they might have sex (clearly, that partner has to function at some minimal level or sex isn’t in the cards). Those in poor health face much worse prospects for an active sex life; diabetes, cancer, arthritis, obesity all make sex more difficult and less rewarding. Recent studies suggest that these challenges of poor health take a bigger toll on the sex lives of men than of women, perhaps because of men’s traditionally more active role in initiating sex and in intercourse itself.
So the chances of having a partner drop with age, and the chances of having sex (given that one has a partner) also decline. Adults in their 50s and early 60s who have partners are virtually all sexually active, regardless of their health. But by their early- to mid-80s, the picture changes, and trajectories of sexual behavior diverge for men and women, with health playing a bigger role. More than half of older partnered men in good health are sexually active, compared to about a quarter of those in fair to poor health. Four in ten older partnered women in the best health are sexually active in their 80s, but among those in fair to poor health, only one in six is. Despite these caveats, many older adults remain sexually active, and, for those who do, sex is generally more than a once-in-a-long-while activity; more than half of sexually active older adults in their mid-70s to early-80s have sex several times a month and about a quarter have sex at least several times a week.
Sexual attitudes and practices show a generational divide of sorts. Those who came of age in the 1960s or later are more liberal in their attitudes, more likely to masturbate, and more likely to include oral sex in their repertoire than those who grew up in an earlier and more conservative time. Older men are more interested in sex than are older women (paralleling the gender difference at younger ages), and interest in sex declines with age for both men and women. Older unpartnered men are much more likely to have had sex with someone in the past year—about a quarter said they did—than are older women, who almost never report this behavior.
And about half of older men and older women report at least one problem with sex that bothers them. Women are most likely to say that they lacked interest in sex, failed to lubricate, or had difficulty reaching climax. Men are most likely to report problems achieving or maintaining an erection, a lack of interest in sex, or climaxing too quickly. Those in poor health are more likely to have poor sexual function, some of which could result from the consequences of disease.
Careful consideration shows that sex among older adults seems like much else in life: functioning declines with age, but fairly slowly, and many people function well even at advanced ages. Further, despite our tendency to pretend otherwise, sexuality exists in a dynamic relationship, intimately connected with other aspects of good health over the entire adult life.