Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

There is finally some good news to come out of the famous Women’s Health Initiative, the study that changed menopause management overnight in July 2002. Some of the news reported this weekend from that study is now all over the Internet.

“Patterns and predictors of sexual activity among women in the Hormone Trials of the Women’s Health Initiative” was published in the journal, Menopause in its October issue, just now out.

This current review of the data on sexual activity in the women enrolled in the WHI study confirms an important basic fact: most women who are in decent physical and psychological health, have a reasonable quality of life, are in a partnered or intimate relationship and liked sex before menopause, like sex after menopause. However, the big news is that women who are in sexual relationships reported that their primary complaint was that they weren’t having sex as frequently as they would like. In spite ofrecent reports that have highlighted the high prevalence of hypoactive desire disorder in females”—in other words, women who aren’t interested in sex—“more women in the present study were dissatisfied with their sexual activity because they preferred more rather than less sexual activity.” [italics added]

This most recent evaluation of the incredible WHI database provides information from 27,347 women who were enrolled between 1993 and 1998 at 40 clinical centers across the US. These women—who were between the ages of 50-79 years at the time of their entry into the study—were asked to complete questionnaires on a variety of subjects at the start of the study and again in one year. Three and six years later, a random 8.6% sub-sample of study participants was asked to fill out questionnaires again. The newest evaluation of WHI data “is the first to summarize the responses to all the sexual activity questions in the WHI-HT trials.”

The authors of this report reinforce the knowledge that “previous function and relationship factors are more important than the hormonal determinants of sexual function. The strength of pre-existing sexual activity as a predictor of current sexual activity suggests that women who remain sexually active as they age are able to preserve sexual function despite declining hormone levels at menopause.”

Here at WVFC, we have focused on this issue in many discussions and in answers to readers concerns: The decrease in a partner’s performance or interest, how to improve sexual comfort (which enhances every woman’s interest and pleasure in sex), finding role models for intimacy later in life, and having a positive attitude about sex in long-term relationships.

“Sexual function was not a principal outcome of the WHI study,” the authors report. However, it is important that we know that 60% of women 50-59 were sexually active; that almost 50% of women in their 60s were sexually active and that close to 30% of women in their 70s remain sexually active. Significantly, for many of the women who were not sexually active, the lack of a partner or a partner with illness was the reason most often listed in this study.

We owe a great debt to these scientists and physicians who are continuing to use this information, gathered from this unprecedented number of women followed over time, to help doctors and patients understand who women in this phase of life really are, and how women in this time of life can make choices based on reality, not myth. After all, we ourselves know that menopause does not take your libido away.

We thank the authors of this important review of WHI data:

Gass, Margery L.S. MD, NCMP; Cochrane, Barbara B. PhD, RN; Larson, Joseph C. MS; Manson, JoAnn E. MD, DrPH, NCMP; Barnabei, Vanessa M. MD, PhD, NCMP; Brzyski, Robert G. MD, PhD; Lane, Dorothy S. MD, MPH; LaValleur, June MD; Ockene, Judith K. PhD, MEd, MA; Mouton, Charles P. MD, MS; Barad, David H. MD, MS.

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  • Sandra Kirch February 23, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    I have been happily married for 24 years. But, suddenly, in my 50s, I cannot stop thinking about other men. I feel like an adolescent boy. I think about sex all the time and am practically obsessed with the notion of having sex with someone other than my husband. What is wrong with me?

    • mk November 18, 2016 at 6:41 pm

      I’m a perimenopausal & almost 53, & my sex drive has gone through the roof. I think about sex as often – even more? – as I did in my 20s.

  • Mary Karr October 25, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Amen, sister. WE been saying this.