Even in Old Age, Men Want Sex More Than Women Do

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Spring is coming, and a young man's thoughts turn to ... you know. Apparently, old men's thoughts turn to the same subject. According to an article to be published Wednesday in the British Medical Journal, 67% of men ages 65 to 74 said they had been sexually active in the past year, compared with just 40% of women in that age group. Everyone knows young men think constantly about sex, but many guys remain interested in sex until they are almost dead: more than one-third of men ages 75 to 85 said they had sex in the past 12 months, compared with just 17% of women in that age group.

Some of this surely has to do with Viagra, which makes it easier for older men to be interested in sex. But the disparity in sexual activity between older men and older women isn't entirely explained by the 1998 release of the little blue pill. One set of data presented in the new paper — taken from the National Survey of Midlife Development, involving about 3,000 adults ages 25 to 74 — was collected in 1995 and 1996. That data set shows that 62% of men ages 65 to 74 reported sexual activity in the previous six months; only 36% of women in the same age group did so.

These differences matter because having a healthy sex life is strongly associated with having a healthy life, period — and also a longer life. Scientists aren't sure about the causal relationship here. Sexually active people tend to be healthier, and healthier people tend to be sexually active. It could be that the fulfillment of sex gives you a health boost, or that being more fit makes sex better — or, more likely, it's a little of both.

What we do know, from this new paper, is that if you are a 30-year-old male, you can be expected to have sex for 35 more years. The authors — Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau and researcher Natalia Gavrilova of the University of Chicago — call this measure your "sexually active life expectancy," or SALE. A 30-year-old woman has a SALE of just 31 more years. (The study also finds that men and women who stay healthy and in good shape gain extra years of sexually active life in older age, compared with their peers in poorer health.) But women live about five years longer than men, so when you do the math, all this means that women go approximately twice as long without sex as men before they die.

Older women also enjoy the sex they do have far less than older men. Married women ages 57 to 64 who haven't been divorced or widowed report having about as much sex as married men in the same age group. But while 77% of partnered men in that age group say they are interested in sex, only 36% of partnered women report the same interest. These figures suggest that a lot of older women may be having sex when they don't really want to.

Lindau, the lead author on the paper, is cautious about drawing strong conclusions from this variance. "It may be that women are more likely to have sex for reasons other than fulfilling pleasure — or that they are more interested in giving a partner satisfaction," she says. "Maybe they lack the agency, or maybe they feel marital duty, but our paper doesn't provide an explanation."

It's a shortcoming in the paper that the journal itself notes: in a British Medical Journal editorial accompanying the paper, Texas A&M University professor Patricia Goodson says that while Lindau and Gavrilova's new SALE measure might someday prove a useful tool for gauging an aging population's medical and public-health needs as they relate to sex, it "sheds no light on the intriguing — and still poorly understood — question of why, even though they enjoy fewer years of sexually active life, many women do not perceive this as a 'problem.' "

Another problem the editorial doesn't mention: the paper is based on self-reported data, and although the authors note that self-reported information about health is usually highly consistent with objective health data, reports of actual sexual activity simply cannot be objectively measured. Even so, the paper does confirm a large difference in sexual interest among older men and older women.

The reasons for the male-female sex disparity among the elderly may not be clear, but the paper shows that the problem in sex quality seems to worsen with age. Still, there is a silver lining for older women having bad or unwanted sex: men tend to die younger than women. Also, it is men's increasing physical and health problems that are most commonly cited (by both men and women) as the reason sexual activity declines later in life.

The new paper raises more questions than it answers. When interviewed, Lindau avoids making any sweeping social commentary. Instead, she notes that as a gynecologist, she gets a lot of questions from older patients about whether their level of sexual activity is normal. "And I haven't had the data to give these women answers," she says. The new paper is a start.