Dame Helen Mirren approves of her wax replica.
Despite the fondness certain corners of the internet and cable television have for mocking sexually vital women of a certain age, new research suggests that those who embrace their sexuality may be laughing all the way to longer, healthier lives—though older men aren’t as lucky.
A study out of Michigan State University (MSU) published this month in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior has found that frequent sex (defined as once or more per week) for women age 57 and older—especially if it’s “extremely pleasurable or satisfying”—resulted in a lower risk of hypertension and protected against cardiovascular disease.
Unfortunately for men, frequent sex in the 57 and older range is actually dangerous, increasing their risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and stroke. The risk is compounded by the use of medications such as Cialis and Viagra.
The study—an analysis of survey data of 2,204 people collected by the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project in 2005-6 and again five years later—isn’t just good news for older women, and should offer hope for younger women as they look to the future of their own sexuality.
Dr. Nancy Sutton Pierce, a nurse and clinical sexologist, suggests the best thing a young woman can do for her continued sexual health is to cultivate an attitude of optimism about it as she ages. “Younger women think sexy has an expiration date. Older women know it doesn’t,” she says.
The study is a stride toward busting the cultural myths that older women are supposedly non-sexual beings, which Sutton Pierce says “absolutely does them a disservice.” Sutton Pierce, who is almost 60, happily defies sexual stereotypes of older women. Married for thirty years to the same man, she says, “My sex life is better than ever, much better than my twenties.” In her work she says she sees women after forty “blossoming,” adding, “As women mature, we mature on all levels, which means we start to own our sexuality and sexual power. We don’t need someone else to tell us we’re hot, we can feel it.”
Study author Hiu Liu, an associate professor of sociology at MSU, also finds that for women, quality of sexual experience is a key contributing factor to the health benefits, not just quantity. “As a sociologist, I don’t see sex as just a physical exercise, as medical doctors do. It’s a social behavior, and has emotional meaning,” she says.
For older women experiencing other kinds of physical declines related to illness, staying sexually active may bring other benefits. Irwin H., who asked to remain anonymous, of San Francisco found that for his 70-year-old wife, who has multiple sclerosis, increasingly limited mobility, and walks with a cane, “Sex gives her back her former sense of her physical self.” He even waxes a little poetic: “Sexuality for her is like an unexpected warm day in the middle of winter. It doesn’t end winter, but it makes it bearable.”
Some older women may believe they’ve lost their sexual selves when they experience the often dramatic physical changes at and after menopause, such as vaginal dryness and reduced libido. They need not despair, says Celeste Holbrook, PhD, a sexual health consultant and sexologist. “Sex, and fulfilling sex doesn’t always have to be centered on the goal of an orgasm, or penetrative sex,” she adds.
However, Liu points out that the female sexual hormone released during orgasm, oxytocin, “may also promote women’s health” by reducing cortisol and increasing estrogen.
Holbrook urges communication between partners rather than silent acceptance. “Redefining your sexuality as we age for anybody is really good. Talk to your partner about your body changes and how you can create a fulfilling sex life while embracing those changes.”
Men shouldn’t worry too much, however. Though the MSU study seems to be the research equivalent of a cold shower for older men, Liu reminds them, “Moderate sex is good for older men, too.”
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