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Don't be surprised by sex after 45

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Not according to a new survey conducted by Zogby International on sex after age 45. But it may take a little more work.

The Washington research firm recently interviewed nearly 3,000 people age 45 and older nationwide about changes in their sex lives. Researchers found that despite all the talk about sex in our society and the barrage of provocative images in the media, Americans over 45 are often unaware of what happens to their own sexuality as they age.

Zogby conducted the survey in conjunction with sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, best known as Dr. Ruth.

Just over two-thirds of respondents report being married and in a monogamous relationship. The good news is nearly three out of five consider themselves sexy and desirable, despite a cultural obsession with youth.

However, 73 percent of men and women say they noticed changes in their sexual desire after hitting 45. Over two-thirds say they began experiencing differences in sexual functioning about the same time. By the time they reached 50-54, 80 percent experienced a change in sexual functioning.

Nearly half say they were surprised by the changes in their sex lives and over a third claim they were totally unexpected.

"In this country with the kind of media saturation we have and where sex is certainly no longer a taboo, it is surprising," that people are not more aware of the potential for changes in their sexuality as they age, says Michelle Van Gilder, director of international marketing for Zogby.

Sex ed not just for teens

According to Dr. Ruth, such ignorance is a hindrance to bliss.

In her view, the survey's findings suggest that the need for sexual education is not limited to teens, but should include older Americans and information about what happens to their libido and bodies as they age.

"Somehow with all the talk, with all the television, somehow the message is not going through as much as we need," she says. "They believe they are always going to be 25, they believe the change of life doesn’t apply to them."

If older people are more prepared for changes in their sexual functioning, "they can learn to have sex in the morning, to not drink too much the day before, all kind of things," she says.

Both men and women are affected by mid-life transitions in their bodies. Men can experience a drop in testosterone levels, resulting in lowered sex drive and mild trouble with erections. As they get older, erectile problems tend to increase.

As women reach pre-menopause and menopause, they experience a range of problems, most commonly vaginal dryness and low libido.

"Sex changes and shifts throughout our lives, depending on our age and depending on what we’re going through," says Dr. Laura Berman, director of the Chicago Berman Center for Sexual Health and Menopause Management. (Berman has no connection to the Zogby survey.)

Among men 45 and over, the survey found that:

  • 65 percent experienced noticeable loss of ability to have erections;
  • 45 percent took a drug for erectile dysfunction;
  • 74 percent found the medication helpful.

Among women 45 and over:

  • 34 percent reported that vaginal dryness lessened sexual satisfaction;
  • 77 percent have used an over-the-counter artificial lubricant for vaginal dryness;
  • 80 percent found the artificial lubricant helpful.

The physical challenges aren't helped by the way mature adults are portrayed in magazines, movies and television, the survey found.  While many older Americans say they feel sexy, a resounding 65 percent agree that the media makes people over 45 seem not so hot.

Berman agrees there are few positive, realistic images of sexy older women and that romance between mature couples on TV is typically portrayed as it is in the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," in which "sex is a constant negotiation as opposed to a model of a fun relationship."

Still, there are plenty of positive things about sex after 45, according to the survey participants.

Less bed hopping means less worrying about sexually transmitted diseases. Communication about sex with a spouse or partner is strong (75 percent say they've discussed libido changes with their partner). And more than half of women say not worrying about birth control has had a positive effect on their sex lives.

"After 45, people are at a point in their lives where they know themselves, feel at home in their bodies, don’t have to play games, don’t feel intimidated and are not as inhibited ... versus in their 20s when they're still trying to figure it all out," says Berman.