Sex Files: Sex and aging

Previous Sex Files columns:

Sex Files: Turn to face the strange changes
New info on hormones and menopausal women

Sex Files: O God!
A few basics on the female orgasm

Sex Files: Just push “Play”
Inside the adult toy chest

Sex Files: It’s how you play the game
Don’t let performance anxiety ruin your sex life

Sex Files: The hard truth
If your partner can’t get hard, do you blame yourself?

Sex Files: Know your anatomy
Reflections on what’s between a woman’s legs

Ask yourself and others at what age you think people retire from sex. Without a doubt, answers will range from "some time after 50" to "when you are dead." Most people, however, can’t or don’t want to think of older folks having sex.

But, in fact, they do. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine gives us the facts about what’s going on between the sheets with American seniors. Researchers interviewed 1,550 women and 1,455 men ages 57 to 85 years and they defined sex or sexual activity as "any mutually voluntary activity with another person that involves sexual contact, whether or not intercourse or orgasm occurs." If people were sexually active, they were asked about what type of sexual activity they engaged in.

Plenty of men and women keep on having sex in later years:

•3 in 4 people between 57-64 years old
•2 in 4 people between 65-74 years old
•1 in 4 people between 75-85 years old

These numbers are not surprising, especially considering the fact that baby boomers are now going into retirement. This generation surely will not want to give up on having satisfying sex lives. Viagra arrived just at the right time.

I hope that studies like this will help put to rest the notion that an older man who’s still interested in sex is a "dirty old man." Note that a similarly negative label for women does not even exist (thankfully). This is not due to increased open-mindedness or awareness when it comes to women’s sexualities, but due to plain ignorance. Most people—except for seniors who know better—cannot imagine that older folks might continue to be interested in sex well after midlife.

Of course not everyone wants to continue having sex. Plenty of middle-aged and even younger individuals declare that they would be "fine never having sex again." O.K. with me. I completely accept that some people, for whatever reason, choose not to be sexually active. Whether to have sex or not should always be a choice—at any time in your life.

So, other than actual intercourse, what are seniors up to? In the NEJM study, about 50 percent of people between 57-75 years old had oral sex (giving or receiving) in the past 12 months. That number dropped to about 33 percent for people between 75-85 years old. Masturbation also continues to be a common practice for men and women of all ages, even though men are about twice as likely as women to pleasure themselves.

For those of you who are older and who continue to be sexually active, I have a piece of important advice. Be sure to use condoms and safer sex techniques (keep an eye out for those in my next column) when you’re with a new partner. According to a recent study, in 32 states with confidential name-based HIV reporting 14 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases occurred in people age 50 years and older.

Only 38 percent of men and 22 percent of women in the NEJM study reported having discussed sex with a physician since the age of 50 years. Don’t be shy to bring up the subject with your health provider. In the late ’90s, former senator Bob Dole created headlines when he openly encouraged men to speak to their doctors about erectile dysfunction. Today, this has become a much less taboo subject to discuss. Sex at old age is not shameful or wrong; it’s part of a healthy and fulfilling life.

Annette Owens, MD, Ph.D., is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. She sees clients in her Charlottesville office ( and answers questions online at and She has co-edited the new four-volume book, Sexual Health (Praeger).