Although there is little clinical data on the health impacts of sexual relationships in older adults, new research gives an intriguing insight. Gender appears to play a significant role in the interplay between sex and health.

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A healthy sex life for older adults might not be as healthy as previously thought.

Research published this week in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior opens an age old question:

Is sex good or bad for the health of older adults?

Overall, the general opinion is that regular, enjoyable sex has health benefits for all.

However, the results from the most recent research challenge this assumption; they show that, depending on your gender, the outcomes can be at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Hui Liu, associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University, set out to investigate any cardiovascular risks or benefits associated with sexual activity. Liu and her team analyzed survey data from 2,204 people.

The participants were taken from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project; they were aged 57-86 when researchers first collected their data in 2005-06. The team collected a second round of data 5 years later.

To assess the cardiovascular health of the population, the team charted rapid heart rate, hypertension, and the amount of circulating C-reactive protein (raised levels of this protein are a sign of inflammation and are known to correlate with heart disease risk). The team also measured general cardiovascular events, including heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.

Once the data came back and the analysis had been carried out, the results were not entirely as expected. Counter to popular belief, older men who had sex at least once a week were more likely to suffer cardiovascular events over the following 5 years. Those who were significantly less sexually active had a substantially reduced risk.

Conversely, this effect was not found in older women.

Strikingly, we find that having sex once a week or more puts older men at a risk for experiencing cardiovascular events that is almost two times greater than older men who are sexually inactive.

Moreover, older men who found sex with their partner extremely pleasurable or satisfying had higher risk of cardiovascular events than men who did not feel so.”

Hui Liu, Michigan State University

The current study cannot provide the reasons for the increased cardiovascular risk, but Liu has some theories. She believes that, because older men can find it harder to reach orgasm – for emotional or medical reasons – they may have to exert themselves to a greater degree.

This exertion could put undue stress on their already struggling cardiovascular system. Although evidence is scant, Lui believes that testosterone levels and medication taken to improve sexual function might also play a part in increasing cardiovascular risk: “it is likely that such sexual medication or supplements have negative effects on older men’s cardiovascular health.”

It may well be that moderate levels of sex in older males is beneficial for overall health, however, being too vigorous and having too much fun might turn the tide.

For older women, this negative association did not rear its head; in fact, the opposite was the case: those who found sex to be particularly pleasurable and satisfying had a lower risk of hypertension 5 years down the line. Liu says:

“For women, we have good news: good sexual quality may protect older women from cardiovascular risk in later life.”

One possible explanation for this polar opposite effect might lie in the psychology of relationships. A close, deep relationship is a vital source of emotional and social support. In itself it might reduce stress and anxiety and promote psychological well-being, therein protecting cardiovascular health.

This psychological support seems to be more important for women; Liu believes this might be “because men in all relationships, regardless of quality, are more likely to receive support from their partner than are women. However, only women in good quality relationships may acquire such benefits from their partner.”

Because sexual activity involves a broad spectrum of psychological and physiological parameters, unpicking the causes and effects will be a difficult task. In the meantime, Liu hopes that this information will inspire doctors to speak with older male patients about the potential dangers of strenuous sex, especially those with existing cardiovascular risks.

Learn more about testosterone and how it maintains sexual function.