Sex Might Help Keep Old People Sharp

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There are lots of reasons to think sex is good for you. As one U.K. National Health Service webpage explains, studies suggest that sex (and physical contact) can reduce stress, fend off illness, and more. Plus, it’s exercise, and exercise is good for you.

Usually, when we think “sex,” we think young or youngish people. Even though older people (obviously) have sex, for many people that conversation has a weird stigma hovering around it. But given that old age brings with it many health risks stemming not only from physical decline but also loneliness, the benefit of sexual activity for older people is an important subject.

It’s also, Dr. Hayley Wright and Rebecca A. Jenks of Coventry University argue in a new study in Age and Ageing, an underexamined area of research. Wright and Jenks wanted to better understand this subject, so they looked to the data.

Specifically, they used the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), “a nationally representative panel survey that gathers data on health, lifestyle and socioeconomic variables in adults over the age of 50 years.” After excluding respondents who didn’t answer questions about their sexual activity over the past year, the researchers examined data from 6,833 individuals between 50 and 89 years of age, with the goal of correlating sexual activity (or a lack thereof) with performance on two cognitive tasks — one involving the recall of a list of words, both immediately after learning it and after a brief delay, and the other involving a task in which respondents had to fill in a missing item in a sequence of numbers.

The researchers found that in both the number sequencing and recall tasks, there was indeed a correlation between sexual activity in the last 12 months and higher performance on the tests. It was gender-specific, though, and there were important nuances to the findings:

This association remains after adjusting for confounding variables such quality of life, loneliness, depression and physical activity [2–5]. This indicates an additional benefit of sexual activity on cognition in older men. For females in the current study, after adjustments for age, education and wealth (Model 1), there was no significant difference in scores on a number sequencing task between sexually active and inactive women. Thus, initial differences were accounted for by age, education and wealth, rather than sexual activity per se. There was however, a significant association between sexual activity and recall scores in women, even after full adjustments (Model 3). These results show an additional benefit of sexual activity, on memory function specifically, in women.

It’s important to keep two things in mind here. One is that this study is not at all equipped to handle the question of the “direction of causality” — that is, whether sex causes higher cognitive functioning, or whether higher cognitive functioning causes older people to seek out sex. (It’s also possible that there isn’t much of a causal relationship between the two at all, and some other hidden variable or variables can account for the correlation.)

The way “sexual activity” was defined here also matters a great deal. The sexual-activity variable was treated as a simple yes/no question as to whether the respondent had participated in “intercourse, masturbation, petting or fondling.” At the risk of getting a bit graphic, it may well be the case that intercourse has a bigger impact on cognitive functioning (or health more broadly) than masturbation, which has a bigger impact than fondling, and so on. It could be the case that orgasms, for example, offer up benefits that sans-climax sexual activity does not. The data sets the researchers used do break things down specifically, the authors note, but for this first round of analysis the authors stuck with the yes/no formulation.

I emailed Wright to ask whether it might be the case that the sexy specifics make a difference. “You’re right,” said Wright in an email. “It is possible that we will find different results with different types of sexual activity — but we can’t comment on this from our initial analysis. We are, however, currently exploring this in our follow-up study — watch this space!”