Age Wise

How Sex Can Get Better With Age

The science of sexual satisfaction through the years

Photo: Nani Chavez/Unsplash

Desire for sex hasn’t changed much for me over the years, and while it’s none of your business, it’s still good, sometimes better than ever.

According to science, I’ve got three things going for the older me: I get a lot of physical activity, I feel younger than my actual age, and apparently I’ve developed a little “sexual wisdom.” So if you’re fumbling through your young-adult sex life, or stressed out in middle age wondering where the magic went, trust that there are ways to improve your sex life now and as you get older.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Miri Forbes, PhD, a psychology researcher with the Center for Emotional Health at Macquarie University in Australia.

Back in 2018, while at the University of Minnesota, Forbes and her colleagues researched the “sexual quality of life” among more than 6,000 Americans from age 20 to 93. They were surprised to find that people acquire skills and strategies over time that can actually improve sexual satisfaction later in life.

“Older adults actually reported better sexual quality of life than younger adults when we matched them on key characteristics of their sex lives and things like gender, relationship status, and mental and physical health,” Forbes tells me.

Developing sexual wisdom

The definition of “good sex” is different for everyone, Forbes notes, but her team’s research revealed one outsized predictor of quality lovemaking across all age groups:

“Romantic relationship quality was a particularly strong predictor of sexual quality of life,” she says. Also, quality beats quantity as time goes on. “Frequency of sex became less important as people got older, but the thought and effort put into sex became more important.”

In a nutshell, as with many things in life, we grow wiser with experience.

“As we age, our sexual priorities tend to change and we develop knowledge, skills, and preferences that can protect against aging-related declines in sexual quality of life,” Forbes explains by email. “This is life experience fostering sexual wisdom.”

Perhaps that’s why 40% of Americans 65 to 80 years old are still sexually active, according to the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging. And more of them would like to be: 76% say sex is an important part of a romantic relationship no matter your age. (Other research indicates a majority of older adults in Western countries are sexually active and satisfied, and that “sexual activity and intimacy play a role in their life satisfaction and psychological well-being.”)

For the record, young Americans aren’t all rolling in the blissful hay.

A separate survey in 2018 found 23% of adults ages 18 to 29 in the U.S. said they had no sex in the past year, which was double the number who said so in 2008. One apparent reason for the growing intimacy drought: Young people these days tend to hold off on the whole partnering up thing.

Feeling young at heart

Clearly we can’t control all the factors that go into good sex. But hey, we can try. Here’s one to ponder:

If, like me, you feel younger than you really are — something scientists call subjective age — you just might have better sex, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Sex Research.

“Feeling younger had a huge impact on how people felt about the quality of their sex life and how interested they were in having sex,” study team member Steven Mock, an associate professor and developmental psychologist at the University of Waterloo, said at the time. “For people in mid-to-later life, feeling young at heart actually appears to make a difference in the bedroom.”

If you’re feeling your age, or feeling older than you are (that’s a thing, too) you might try making lifestyle changes that promote a healthier mental state, such as an improved diet and some physical activity, researchers suggest. Oodles of studies show that even modest movement like a brisk walk (don’t think of it as exercise!) can have tremendous effects on mental and physical well-being.

And no surprise, good health is a key to staying sexually active, that University of Michigan poll found. Some 45% of U.S. seniors who say their health is good to excellent are doing it, compared to just 22% who say their health is fair or poor.

Regardless of age, physically active people have more sex and better sex, one study found. How it works is simple: A little heavy breathing beyond the bedroom will improve your overall health, boost your mood, give you more stamina, and send more blood down to those oh-so-important parts, the researchers explain.

Overall, research is overturning popular views of sexuality, as well as sex and aging. In one study, many women in mid-life reported that sex may happen less often as they age, but it tends to get better. Reasons include — listen up, guys — increased confidence to express themselves sexually and better communication with their partners.

With all that in mind, Forbes offers some wise suggestions:

“Many of the important features of sexual wisdom are things we can work on ourselves,” she says, “such as learning more about our own sexual preferences, learning more about our partners’ likes and dislikes, and putting more thought and effort into our sex life knowing it can be a healthy and positive part of our life and relationships across the lifespan.”

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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