With time and practice, most of the core domains of our lives improve as we develop skills and strategies to manage our lives with more mastery.
While this fits with the messages we receive from popular culture, which tell us that sex is a young person’s domain, it is somewhat at odds with the fact that older adults continue to explore and enjoy sexuality well into old age.
Studying sex and aging
There is a key element missing from nearly all studies of sex and aging: studying change over time. If we ask a group of people how satisfied they are with their sex life, and the younger people are more satisfied than the older people, does that mean that aging is responsible for this difference?
What if instead the apparent age difference is because people born in the 1930s have different attitudes toward sex than people who grew up after the sexual revolution of the ’60’s and ’70’s?
A key question for our study was: How would you rate the sexual aspects of your life these days, from the worst possible situation (0) to the best possible situation (10)?
The basic trends in the data suggested that — without taking any other factors into account — sexual quality of life declines with age. But as people in the study aged, they placed more emphasis on the quality — not quantity — of sexual encounters. For example, frequency of sex became less important with age, and the amount of thought and effort invested in sex became more important.
These changing priorities were key predictors of sexual quality of life for older adults, and appeared to buffer its decline. When we matched older and younger adults on key characteristics of their sex lives — along with sociodemographic characteristics, and mental and physical health — older adults actually had better sexual quality of life.
For example, if we compared a 40-year-old man and a 50-year-old man with the same levels of perceived control over their sex life, who invest the same amount of thought and effort in their sex life, have sex with the same frequency and had the same number of sexual partners in the past year, we would expect the 50-year-old to report better sexual quality of life.
Life experience related to a better sex life
We now know that age-related declines in sexual quality of life are largely related to modifiable factors, so we can target sexual skills, beliefs and attitudes in clinical interventions. Given that our life expectancy continues to grow, this research highlights the opportunity to facilitate positive sexual experiences across the lifespan.
Miri Forbes is a postdoctoral research fellow in psychiatry and psychology at the University of Minnesota. Nicholas Eaton is an assistant professor in clinical psychology at Stony Brook University (The State University of New York). Robert Krueger is a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota.