Health: Sex and Aging, The Social Stigma

Published on Triple Helix Online, BY JENNIFER SUNG, August 29, 2011.

Many people find the idea of older people having sex disgusting to the point of absurdity. Older people’s sexuality is often exploited for laughs on television or casually mocked.  While it is true that sex often becomes more difficult as one gets older, and the level of desire for sex often changes, the need for intimacy often remains constant over a lifetime. This enduring human need passes largely under the radar because of the social stigma against older adults’ sexual activity and aging.  

It is hard to say whether the social stigma has limited research in these areas, or whether stigma comes in part from the lack of information. It may be both. In either case, the study of older people’s sexuality is a relatively young field in Western medicine, and American sexuality researchers’ data on that demographic is limited. Results of those studies might have limited relevance to non-heterosexual and non-Western people [1]. However, it is known that older adults are interested in having sex. In a recent study by Lindau et al., 73% of survey participants who were 57 to 64 years old, 53% who were 65 to 74, and 26% who were 75 to 85 had had sex with someone within a year prior to the study [5] … //

… There are many approaches that can be taken to help older adults take control of their sexual health. Researchers from the University of Chicago have created the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), a study on the role that social relations play in health as people age. Its end goal is to improve quality of life during aging. Unlike many previous studies, it surveyed a nationwide, nationally representative set of people, and its data will be made publicly available for research. It is population-based: it puts individual patient care in the context of groups of people with similar needs, with the aim of improving a group’s health without sacrificing the quality of individual care. They interviewed and collected measurements from 3,000 older adults in 2005 and 2006, and will interview them again in 2010 and 2011 [9].

The unprecedented scope of the NSHAP is also significant. According to U. S. Census projections, people age 65 and older will constitute 19.6% of the national population by 2030 [6]. While countries have historically reached developed status before aging, the birth rates in developing countries such as China and India are also dropping so quickly that their populations will age before their economies are considered developed. Issues concerning older adults will be magnified worldwide during the coming decades. Such studies will be valuable data collection models and sources of information for researchers all over the world.

Social stigma against older adults’ sexuality has a significant impact on health. But the health care problems it creates also call for a concerted effort to change perceptions. The goal should be to educate the general public, not just older adults or teenagers, about how sexuality changes through a lifetime. Arguing that older people should not need or want sexual intimacy is dehumanizing, and old age is a demographic category that most people will eventually join. It would be a shame for young people to wait until old age to attempt to correct this social stigma upon discovering that they are very much the same people inside as when they were young. (full text and References 1 – 9).

Links:

Top 10 Health Benefits of Sex, on Silver Projections;

Human female sexuality on en.wikipedia;

Human sexual activity on en.wikipedia;

Sexual Behavior of Single Adult American Women, article in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2008, 40(1):27–33, doi: 10.1363/400270, published on Guttmacher Institute New York, by Laura Duberstein, Lindberg and Susheela Sing, March 2008;

how women’s privat sex behavior is answered – a real story.

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