Getting old does not mean saying so long to sex, U.S. researchers said on Wednesday.
More than three-quarters of American men aged 75 to 85 and half of women that age are still interested in sex, a survey of the elderly by University of Chicago researchers found.
"It's not age per se; that when you get to 80 it's all over with," said sociologist Edward Laumann, who led the study of 3,000 American men and women aged 57 to 85 who lived at home, not in nursing homes.
"It's driven by more proximate factors such as if you become obese, or you're smoking too much, or you contract diabetes. Medications can depress sexual interest. The aging process itself is not a major factor driving these results," he said in a telephone interview.
Laumann and his team, who performed a companion survey of younger adults nearly a decade ago, found that sexual dysfunction such as experiencing pain during sex or an inability to achieve orgasm tend to increase as adults reach middle age but then plateaus.
In the survey of elderly Americans, two-thirds of the men and nearly half the women had been sexually active in the past year, they reported in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
The reasons for losing interest in sex are wrapped up in several physical and mental health factors, Laumann said.
"If sexual health goes to hell, it may be a canary in the mine shaft. It may be a sign of health problems," Laumann said, urging doctors to investigate if sexual problems arise.
Chronic urinary tract infections and incontinence often suppress sex lives, he said.
Anxiety a big factor
Having a partner to have sex with can also be problematic for the elderly. Among women aged 70 and older, 70 percent have outlived or are separated from their spouses. Among men in that age group, 35 percent have lost a long-time partner.
If the surviving relationship is bad, that can snuff out the couple's sex life, Laumann added.
"Anxiety is very clearly a big factor (in sexual dysfunction) for women, and depression in men," he said. "And men can become very depressed because of sexual dysfunction."
Erectile dysfunction increases from 31 percent among men aged 57 to 64 to more than 40 percent among older men. Laumann said he had found in other research that 14 percent of men of all ages had tried erectile dysfunction drugs.
Those who have attended college are less likely to have sexual problems than the less-educated, Laumann said, presumably because the educated tend to dismiss myths about sex and aging and are more likely to seek out answers.
Last month, Swedish researchers reported that 70-year-olds of both sexes are having more sex than they did 30 years ago, with 68 percent of married men and 54 percent of women saying they were having sex in 2001, up from 52 percent of men in the early 1970s and 30 percent of women.