How old is too old to have sex? 50? 70? 90? The fact is that anyone in good health, and someone who isn't, can continue to have sexual relationships well into the later years. All it takes is a combination of physical ability, motivation, attitudes and opportunity. Having sex is part of sexuality, but it's not the only or even most crucial aspect, particularly in later life.
Thanks to a large-scale study published in late 2009, we know a good deal about the sex lives of adults 50 and older. The National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP) asked anything and everything about the sexual habits, interests and attitudes of nearly 3,000 adults as old as 85 years old. Principal Investigator Linda Waite and her team from the University of Chicago devised interviews and paper-and-pencil questionnaires that asked participants to open up about many sensitive aspects of their personal lives.
The study's main findings boil down to these 10 points:
1. Women were far less likely to have a current partner than men. Only 41 percent of those 75-84 had a partner, compared to 78 percent of men in that age group.
2. About one-fifth of women 65-74, and 30 percent of men, were cohabitating at the time of the study. The oldest group was least likely cohabitate, and the youngest the most likely to live out of wedlock. Each generation seems to be more and more accepting of this living arrangement.
3. Not many, but some of these older adults reported having more than one sex partner in the previous year (3 percent of men and 1 percent of women). Each successive generation was more likely to have multiple sex partners.
4. People maintain active sex lives well into their later years, with 38 percent of men and 17 percent of women who were 75-85 having sex at least once a year.
5. All of the age groups tended to define sexual relationships in terms of vaginal intercourse, but behavior among the oldest of the groups seemed to shift away from this definition. Those 75 and older were more and more likely to view sexual activity as consisting almost entirely of kissing, hugging and sexual touching, according to the authors.
6. A substantial percentage stated that they engaged in oral sex (28 percent of men and and 36 percent of women), but the percentages were higher in each younger cohort.
7. Same-sex relationships were more common among men (7 percent) than women (3.4 percent).
8. These over-50 participants maintained a healthy interest in sex as suggested by the statistics on masturbation. Even among the oldest participants, 28 percent of men and 16 percent of women reported that they engaged in masturbation at least once in the previous year.
9. Men at all ages were more positive about sex and sexual expression regardless of circumstances and even the oldest men in the group still said they had sexual thoughts.
10. Almost all of the participants hug or hold their partner fairly often (90 percent) if they have one.
There seems to be no age limit to people's interest in sex or even their ability to have some form of sexual expression. The NSHAP study showed that people as old as 85 years are having sex with at least one partner, and in a variety of ways. However, cultural factors have an enormous impact on the ways that individuals express their sexuality. With each successive age group, fewer individuals report engaging in sexual activity in ways other than through intercourse. The oldest groups were least likely to report having same-sex relationships and to engage in masturbation. To take advantage of the benefits to your mental health from intimate relationships, including those involving sex, you need to understand the extent to which you're influenced by these sexual mores and norms.
The other major finding from this study relates to non-sexual forms of expression. As you saw, 90 percent of adults of all ages with partners reported that they hugged. For those without partners, however, it became more and more difficult to find ways to have their affectional needs fulfilled. If you're in this position, you may wish to ask yourself if this missing element in your life is creating emotional difficulties. Don't fear expressing your nonsexual intimacy needs with the people close to you in your life, including friends, grandchildren and other relatives.
The ways you have your emotional and physical needs fulfilled can influence your health. Research shows that people who kiss have better heart health, and the affection you receive from those close to you can also help boost everything from your immune system to your memory. Keep an open mind to ways to satisfy these needs, and your mind -- and body -- will thank you.