Good news, everyone! According to a recent study published in The Journal of Sex Research, regularly gettin' down to some quality hanky panky goes a long way to protect senior citizens against cognitive decline.
The study utilized data from The University of Chicago's National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSLHA) — described as the "first nationally representative study of the intersection between social and intimate relationships and healthy aging" by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC) — to determine whether older adults' sex lives could be linked in any way to cognitive decline as they age.
"Broadly, I am interested in how social relationships are related to the risk of health problems in later life," study author Shannon Shen, an assistant professor of sociology at Hope College in Michigan, told PsyPost of her research, adding that sexuality is an "often overlooked" part of older American adult's lives. "Despite there being a great deal of research on cognitive decline," she continued, there's "little work that considers how intimate social relationships may be beneficial for cognitive functioning."
Using the NSLHA data, Shen limited the study's sample to 1,683 individuals aged 62 and older, all of whom had provided complete data on their cognitive health and were sexually partnered in some way — as PsyPost put it, all of the 1,683 chosen for study were "either married, cohabiting, or had a romantic, intimate, or sexual partner."
The results were striking. Shen found that elders between the ages of 75 and 90 who had sex at least once a week were shown to exhibit better cognitive function than counterparts who were less sexually active — specifically, older folks who hadn't had sex within the past year at the time of the survey — if sexually active at all.
What's more, according to the study, is that not all sex is created equal. For folks between the ages of 62 and 74, sexual quality was key in determining whether sexual activity actually offered cognitive benefits. Per the research, those who were partnered yet reported a lack of satisfaction in their sex life didn't appear to experience the same brain-protecting boost as those who reported their sex lives to be satisfying and pleasurable — meaning the takeaway of the research isn't that seniors should commit to less-than-gratifying sex just for health reasons.
"For partnered older Americans, sex matters for later cognitive function, but this depends on age and aspect of the sexual relationship," Shen told PsyPost. "For adults 75 to 90 years old, having sex once a week or more is related to better cognitive function five years later compared to those who had no sex."
There's also a long-term element. Good sex now, she found, seems to have a protective effect on cognitive function years down the road.
"For adults 62 to 74 years old," the researcher added, "having better sexual quality — both more physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction — was related to better cognitive function five years later."
As with most similar research, the study isn't without caveats. Though factors like race, ethnicity, and income were taken into account, the research, as Shen told PsyPost, "only examined community-dwelling older adults, so the results do not speak to older adults living in nursing homes."
"Second," Shen added, "there were no questions in the dataset that addressed sexual consent, which someone with more severe forms of cognitive decline may have a limited capacity to give."
Still, the findings are intriguing. It's also reason, perhaps, for those in other age groups to reflect on their intimate relationships — and the norms and judgment we might project onto seniors in particular.
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