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by Patricia Yarberry Allen, MD | bio

Sex is a big topic in my office for women over age 60, partnered or not. So it came as no surprise to me last month when a study on older adult sexuality and health found that Americans are sexually active well into their 70s and beyond.

Sex sells — and news that “seniors” have sex sells exceptionally well. The study, conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Social Life, Health and Aging Project and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is the most comprehensive sex survey ever done among 57- to 85-year-olds in the United States, and it made headlines everywhere (though as Ronni Bennett points out, the coverage was not always enlightening).

Certainly, there was lots of good news to report. The findings underscore what doctors, therapists and older sexually active men and women know: Sex is fun, sex improves relationships and sex improves mood.

Doctors know that taking a sexual history periodically is an important part of evaluating a patient’s physical and psychological health, yet this delicate conversation is often neglected. Researchers found that only 38 percent of older men and 22 percent of older women had discussed sex with a physician since turning 50. I found it interesting that the questions about masturbation were answered far less than other questions, since it is my experience that women will discuss the use of vibrators and masturbation quite comfortably and in a matter-of-fact way.

According to the survey, the absence of sex is largely due to the usual suspects: illness, depression, sexual dysfunction and lack of a partner. Some women think that their sexuality is no longer as valid as they age, yet they respond well to conversations encouraging them to discuss their options for sexual expression.

Women may also feel that it is “normal” for sexual frequency to decline precipitously once a man has erectile problems, which the survey found affects 37 percent of men over age 70. However, when asked directly, women often tell me that they miss the intimacy and excitement. Many acknowledge that they are orgasmic with vibrators or masturbation once a paired sexual experience is no longer possible.

If the decline in sexual activity is due to erectile dysfunction, I recommend a visit to a urologist who has an interest in this area. In fact, I often suggest that women see the urologist first to prepare for a visit with their partners or husbands if there is shame about the loss of sexual function.

Women over age 70 are especially frank about their sex lives in my office. “Mary” is 77, an always popular and elegant lady about town. She never stayed away from dinner parties, dances at the club, or trips to wonderful places just because she was older and divorced. She had many wonderful male friends, but has not been in a relationship for the past five years. Then a little over a month ago, Mary confided with great glee that she had a serious beau and that she wanted to make certain that she could have intercourse.

Following an evaluation, we planned a four-week course of action to restore her thinning genital tissue, first with oral supplements of vitamin D and then with locally applied estrogen. This helped to prevent discomfort Mary might have felt during intercourse. Vaginal dryness is quite common and affects 39 percent of women in their 70s, according to the survey.

When Mary returned for her follow-up visit, she reported on every aspect of her 76-year-old partner’s erectile dysfunction management with absolute confidence and comfort. “He uses a vacuum thing that causes the penis to become erect,” she said. “Then there is a band that goes around the penis to maintain the erection.”

As she left my office, dressed in a periwinkle blue summer suit that matched her eyes and made her red hair shine, she added, “Life is certainly wonderful in this age of special support for sexy seniors.”

I have Mary and many of her generation to thank for giving me a template for my sexy senior years to come.

* * * * *
Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen,
director of the New York Menopause Center, is a gynecologist affiliated
with New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a board certified fellow of the
American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Have a question about sex, women’s health or the menopausal transition? Write to [email protected].

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  • Mary September 19, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    I am the “Mary” Dr. Pat refers to in this blog. I wanted to write to say that I am continuing to enjoy, without embarrassment, but with lots of humor and great communication, this unexpected late in life love affair. As Marla Maples said about Donald Trump, “Sex was never so good.”
    I was a convent-educated girl with all the repression of those times and that religion. I know now that I never took a vow of celibacy, so sex outside of marriage is an individual choice. Wisdom and introspection has given me this great gift as well.
    Many women who are older have financial situations that would make a legal commitment impossible, since they would lose their pensions, alimony, etc. Women I know have chosen freedom from mid-20th century standards and are instead embracing a life of hope and intimacy. Even men and women in nursing homes have serious dating lives and overnight visits. This is our choice.
    I am unafraid of the future because I know that I have love in my life. Last week, my wonderful partner put his head in my lap and said to me, “I love you so much.” This moving experience is a permanent memory of this joyful time that will remain with me forever.