Seniors Plus Sex = Better Brains

Date: 02/20/2016    Written by: Beth Levine

Seniors Plus Sex = Better Brains

As they enter their golden years, many people do not have quite the sex lives as when they were younger. Diminished libido, erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, arthritis aches and pains, or the loss of a spouse are just some of the numerous reasons sex can be infrequent or nonexistent among older folks. But it might be worth another try, and not just because it can be a very enjoyable pastime. New research suggests that senior citizens who have an active sex life "may" have healthier brains.

The study, which was conducted at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, found that participating in sexual activity at an advanced age may be linked with greater cognitive function.1 The subjects were 6,833 men and women between the ages of 50 and 89. Each of them had answered a questionnaire focused on lifestyle topics including whether they had sex in the past year. They all underwent cognitive testing as well.

In an interesting turn of events, the association between being sexually active and brain health was more strongly correlated in men than it was in women. The male participants were shown to score higher on both word recall and number sequencing tasks when they reported an active sex life. The sexually active female volunteers, in contrast, performed better on word recall tests, but not on number sequencing. The findings held true even after the scientists controlled for a large range of potentially influencing factors such as age, education attained, socioeconomic background, relationship status, physical activity level, domestic arrangements, depression, and quality of life.

It is not clear why women's and men's brains might not be equally protected from cognitive issues by sex, but the researchers postulated that it might have to do with hormones that affect the brain. Word recall, which was aided in both genders by sexual activity, is a function of our memory. However number sequencing, which was only linked to sexual activity in men, falls under the umbrella of executive function. Executive function is something of a control center that helps us get things done. Memory is based in the hippocampus area of the brain, whereas executive function originates in the frontal lobe.

There were certain weaknesses in the study. It was not designed to prove cause and effect, so we don't know for sure if having sex promotes better cognitive function or whether it's maintaining cognitive abilities that enhances your sex life. In addition, the survey was pretty vague about sexual activity levels, really only weeding out those who had not engaged in sex for more than a year. It would be interesting to see if regular sexual activity would correlate more strongly with higher cognitive test scores than in those who may have only had sex one time 11 months earlier. Plus, the scientists initially had a population sample of 10,000 individuals, but more than 3,000 were excluded because they hadn't answered the questions about sex, which might skew the data depending on why they chose to skip that topic.

Perhaps even less surprisingly, the male and female subjects who reported that they had sex in the past year tended to be younger, better educated, wealthier, more likely to exercise, and not experiencing depression or loneliness. Age alone is probably a significant factor in this investigation because the scientists included such a large range. Frequent sex is likely vastly more common for those in their early 50s compared with those in their late 80s. And people at the older end of this spectrum are also at much higher risk for developing cognitive problems.

Despite these shortcomings, though, it is important to remember that sex is not only a form of exercise that can get our heart rates up--even post-heart attack--it is also an act of intimacy. Supportive relationships and social connections were shown in a 2008 study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to be associated with improved brain function in seniors.2 So light that spark of passion with your significant other on a regular basis as you get older--it may end up benefiting you both in a multitude of ways.

  • 1. Wright, Hayley and Jenks, Rebecca A. "Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitive function in older age." Age and Ageing. 28 January 2016. Accessed 10 February 2016.
  • 2. Ybarra, O.; et al. "Mental exercising through simple socializing: social interaction promotes general cognitive functioning." Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. February 2008. Accessed 11 February 2016.

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