We're all happy to accept that fine wine improves with age—becoming more complex, more enjoyable, more valuable—so why not consider the possibility that sexuality develops similarly as it matures?
Sure, your experience of sex during midlife and beyond is not likely to be the same as it was in your younger years. But that doesn't mean your sex life is destined to be dull or disappointing. On the contrary.
Healthy individuals can remain sexually active and interested well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s, if they choose to. And an active sex life may help keep you young. Some age-related physical changes may be unavoidable, it's true, but these changes don't have to interfere with sexual intimacy.
The fact is, there's no one "right" way to experience sex. The way you express your sexuality is shaped by your individuality and your personal circumstances. Whether you're single or in a relationship, disabled or able-bodied, young or old, think of your sexuality as a unique part of who you are. By taking a more personal, less prescribed approach to sexual intimacy, you allow yourself the freedom to adapt your sex life according to your changing needs.
The first step to maintaining an active, fulfilling sex life is getting to know some of the normal physical changes you're likely to experience as you get older. The next step is being open to making a few simple adjustments to your standard sexual routine.
What to Expect
There are several age-related changes that may affect your sex life. Both men and women experience changes in their bodies as they grow older. You already know that. But did you know that in many ways, aging affects sexuality similarly in women and men? For instance, after a certain age, it takes both men and women longer to become sexually aroused. So rather than worrying about your changing body and slower response time, talk to your partner—he or she may be experiencing something remarkably similar.
Still, there are a few changes that are unique to men or unique to women.
CHANGES IN MEN
One of the main concerns for many men as they grow older (and even when they're young) is that they won't be able to perform anymore—that they'll have trouble getting an erection, or that their erections won't be firm enough for sex. The technical term is erectile dysfunction (ED).
The truth is, the causes of erectile dysfunction are varied and complex, but ED is not an inevitable consequence of aging.
As men age, however, certain physiological changes that are likely to affect sexual functioning to a lesser degree do occur. An enlarged prostate can inhibit an erection. Levels of the hormone testosterone, believed to be linked to libido and sexual virility, gradually decrease, and blood flow to the genital area may not be as rapid as it was earlier in life.
But these changes don't have to mean you're heading into a sexual sunset. In fact, studies show that as many as 7 out of 10 healthy 70-year-olds report having sex once a week, and many men enjoy sex well into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s.
Familiarizing yourself with some of the natural changes associated with aging may help you minimize potential problems and develop your more mature sexual self.
Remember that a healthy sex life is one that's healthy for you, and for your partner, if you have one. There's no such thing as a "normal" level of desire or an optimal frequency for sex. If you're not interested in sex at this time in your life and it's not affecting your relationship, then that's healthy for you.
Age-Related Change #1: Slower Response Time
As you get older, it may take longer for your body to respond to sexual stimulation. Even if you feel highly aroused, it's normal for older men to need longer, stronger stimulation to achieve an erection.
Although this is not necessarily a sign of disinterest or a lack of attraction, some men, and their partners, may misinterpret it as such. To avoid misunderstandings, keep the lines of communication open. It may not be easy to talk about sex at first, but in the long run, it will benefit both of you.
What You Can Do
Don't rush things. Spend more time on what's traditionally been considered foreplay. Explore each other's body: kiss, caress, lick, or give each other erotic massages. And remember that if your partner is about the same age as you, she may also need more time and stimulation to become sexually aroused. If you are unable to become aroused on a regular basis, speak with your healthcare provider. There could be a treatable underlying condition causing your difficulties.
Age-Related Change #2: Weak Erections and Weakening Pelvic Muscles
Many older men find that their erections are different than they were in their younger years. They may not be as hard, they may not last as long, and the experience of ejaculation may not feel as strong as it used to.
This may be due, in part, to weakening pelvic-floor muscles. Pelvic-floor muscles are responsible for drawing blood to the genitals during sexual activity, affecting erection and orgasm.
What You Can Do
For some men, having sex in the morning, when erections are more likely, helps improve their ability to maintain an erection longer. But keep in mind that penetrative sex isn't the only way to have great sex. Experiment with different sexual activities to figure out what feels best for you at this time in your life.
You can also strengthen your pelvic muscles by doing Kegel exercises every day. You may have heard that these are exercises especially for women, but they can benefit men, too. They're easy to do, but they're also easy to get wrong. Follow these instructions.
Concerned about erectile dysfunction (ED)?
Staying healthy by being physically active, eating a balanced diet, and maintaining a healthy weight benefits your overall -- and your sexual -- health, and may help prevent ED. But if you're experiencing ongoing, significant erectile difficulties, it may be a symptom of an underlying health issue. Find out more about ED from the National Institutes of Health.
Age-Related Change #3: Longer Refractory Periods
It's common for older men to experience a longer refractory period -- the time it takes until your body's ready for another erection after you ejaculate. In some cases, the cooling off period may be as long as 12 to 24 hours, or more.
What You Can Do
If you've climaxed, but you or your partner isn't ready for the sexual experience to end just yet, focus on meeting your partner's needs or on activities that don't require an erection. For example, you don't need an erection for oral sex or manual stimulation.
Whatever you do, don't get stressed worrying about your virility. This is a normal change that comes with aging, not a sign that you're losing your touch. And you will likely find that the different sexual activities you engage in without an erection are still highly pleasurable -- for both you and your partner. Just be sure to reassure your partner that your refractory period is not a reflection of how you feel about her.
CHANGES IN WOMEN
Growing older, particularly for women, tends to be associated with a significant drop in sex drive, but research suggests that some women may actually experience more frequent and more intense orgasms as they age. And after menopause—without the risk of an unplanned pregnancy—many women find they enjoy sex more fully and freely than ever before.
Nevertheless, most women will experience a number of changes around menopause that may make sexual activity uncomfortable or even painful. The good news is that many of these changes can be easily remedied.
Age-Related Change #1: Vaginal Dryness
During and after menopause, lower levels of estrogen circulating in a woman's body may cause the lining of the vagina to become dry and fragile. It may feel itchy and sore; as a result, penetrative sex may be painful. If the lining of the vagina is very dry, intercourse can cause chafing and bleeding. So it's easy to see why a woman experiencing vaginal dryness might want to avoid sex.
What You Can Do
Try a water-based vaginal lubricant, such as Replens® or K-Y® Long-Lasting Vaginal Moisturizer. These types of lubricants can help relieve dryness and irritation and are available over-the-counter.
Some lubricants are designed for application just before intercourse, but the longer-lasting moisturizers are specifically for menopause-related dryness and they help keep the vagina moist for up to 72 hours.
Age-Related Change #2: Slower Response Time
As a woman gets older, it may take longer for her body to respond to sexual stimulation. Even when highly aroused, her natural lubrication may take time to kick in, and she may not become as wet as she used to.
What You Can Do
Don't rush things. Spend more time on what's traditionally been considered foreplay, or consider trying a lubricant.
Other Issues That Can Affect Sexuality
Chronic medical conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, can affect a person's ability or desire to be sexually active. It's difficult for someone to feel sexy when he or she is in constant pain, feels sick or weak, or is recovering from surgery.
Also, some medications affect sexual functioning. Antidepressants, antihistamines, chemotherapy, and drug treatments for high blood pressure may contribute to erectile dysfunction in men and reduce sexual desire and increase vaginal dryness in women.
No matter what your health issue or age bracket, a little bit of patience, understanding, and creative thinking can help you make the most of your sexuality for many years to come.
Six Steps to Maintain and Enhance Your Sexual Well-Being