Sexual desire in older women: what a study reveals may surprise you


It’s a myth that women lose interest in sex as they enter their 40s and beyond, according to a study that followed more than 3,200 women for about 15 years.

“About a quarter of women consider sex to be very important, regardless of age,” said Dr. Holly Thomas, lead author of an abstract presented at the September 2020 virtual annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society.

“The study showed that a substantial number of women still enjoy sex, even as they age, and that’s not abnormal,” said Thomas, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

“If women are able to talk with their partner and make sure they have fulfilling and pleasurable sex for them, they are more likely to see this as very important as they get older,” he said. she declared.

“It’s actually quite refreshing that there’s a quarter of women for whom sex remains not only on the radar but very important,” said Dr. Stephanie Faubion, medical director of the North American Menopause Society, who n did not participate in the study.

“Studies like these provide valuable information to health care providers who might otherwise dismiss a woman’s waning sexual desire as a natural part of aging.”

It is true that previous studies have shown that women tend to lose interest in sex as they age. But women’s health practitioners say that attitude doesn’t match the reality they see.

“Some of the earlier studies had suggested that sex will downhill and all women lose interest in sex as they get older,” Thomas said. “That’s really not the kind of story I hear from all my patients.”

One problem, she says, is that previous studies have taken a single snapshot of a woman’s desire at one point in her life and compared it with similar snapshots over subsequent decades of life.

“This type of longitudinal study would just show averages over time,” Thomas said. “And if you look at it on average, it can seem like everyone is following a path.”

The study presented in 2020 used a different type of analysis that allowed researchers to track the trajectory of a woman’s desire over time, Thomas said at the time.

“We wanted to use this different type of technique to see if there really were these different patterns,” she said. “And when you look at those trajectories, you see that there are significant groups of women who follow another path.”

The research, which analyzed data from a multi-site national study called SWAN, or the Study of Women’s Health Across the Country, found three distinct pathways in a woman’s feelings about the importance of sex.

About a quarter of women (28%) followed traditional thinking on the subject: they placed less importance on sex during quarantine.

However, another quarter of the women in the study said the exact opposite. About 27% of them said that sex remains very important throughout their 40s, 50s and 60s – a surprising contradiction to the belief that all women lose interest in sex as they get older.

“Sex is going to be different,” said Faubion, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Women’s Health.

“It won’t be the same at 40 as at 20; it won’t look the same at 60 as it did at 40, and it won’t look the same at 80 as it did at 60,” she said. “There may be some changes we need to make, but people in general who are healthy and in good relationships are still sexual.”

The women in the study who placed a high value on sex shared the following characteristics: they were more educated, they were less depressed, and they had experienced greater sexual satisfaction before entering their 40s.

“Women who had more satisfying sex when they were in their 40s were more likely to continue to place a high value on sex as they aged,” Thomas said.

There could also be socio-economic factors at play, she added. For example, more educated women may have higher incomes and feel more stable in their lives with less stress.

“As a result, they have more space to make sex a priority because they don’t care about other things,” Thomas said.

The study revealed another important factor for low-interest and high-interest pathways – race and ethnicity.

African-American women were more likely to say sex was important to them during quarantine, while Chinese and Japanese women were more likely to rate sex as of low importance throughout quarantine.

“I want to emphasize that this is much more likely to be due to socio-cultural factors than any biological factor,” Thomas said. “Women from different cultural groups have different attitudes…different levels of comfort with getting older…and whether it’s ‘normal’ for a woman to continue to value sex as she gets older.”

The majority of women (48%) fell into a third path: they enjoyed a healthy sex life as they entered menopause, but gradually lost interest throughout their 50s or 60s.

According to experts, a number of emotional, physical and psychological factors could affect how a woman views sex. Most can be divided into four categories:

Medical conditions: When women enter perimenopause in their 40s and 50s, they begin to experience hormonal changes that can make sex less satisfying or even painful.

The drop in estrogen makes the vulva and vaginal tissues thinner, drier, and more easily broken, bruised, or irritated. Excitement may become more difficult. Hot flashes and other signs of menopause can affect mood and sleep quality, leading to fatigue, anxiety, irritability, brain fog, and depression.

Many medical conditions can arise or worsen during midlife, which can also affect sex drive.

“Do they have medical conditions like hip arthritis that cause pain during sex? Or the arthritis of the hand which can complicate the task? Or things like diabetes where they don’t feel the same, or do they have heart disease? asked Faubion.

“But there is modifications that we talk about all the time to help people stay sexual, even for quadriplegics,” she said. “There are ways to stay sexual despite the disability.”

Mental and emotional considerations: The psychological component of sex can have a huge influence on a woman’s levels of sexual desire. A history of sexual or physical abuse, battling substance abuse, and depression, anxiety, and stress are major players in this category.

“I can’t tell you enough about the impact of anxiety and stress on sex,” Faubion said. “Think about this fight or flight mechanic – your adrenaline is pumping, so you’re back in the days of the caveman and a lion is chasing you.

“Are you going to lie down on the grassy knoll and make love when the lion is chasing you? The answer is no. And that’s how anxious women are all the time, so anxiety is a huge, huge factor in whether women will be sexual.

Although the study did not look specifically at anxiety, the results showed that women with more symptoms of depression were significantly less likely to consider sex a priority in life. In addition to the emotional impact, a reduced libido is a side effect of many antidepressants prescribed to treat depression.

Partner component: Middle-aged women can also face dramatic and disturbing changes in their love life that can have a major impact on their interest in sex.

“Do they lose a love partner through divorce or death? Does a romantic partner develop health problems that make sex more difficult or awkward? Are they busy with other aspects of their lives – their careers, caring for grandchildren or even adult children returning to live with them? It makes it difficult to prioritize sex,” Thomas said.

Even if they have a partner, relationships may have had their ups and downs which can affect how a woman experiences intimacy with a significant other.

“Do you love your partner? asked Faubion. “Is your communication good? Even logistics can get in the way – are you in the same place at the same time? »

Social mores: Society also affects how a woman feels about sex. Religious, cultural and family values ​​on the subject can play an important role in sexual ease and satisfaction.

“Then there’s what society teaches us about female aging,” Faubion said. “And so, for some women, having sex is kind of bad. Women are not supposed to like sex.

“I’ve seen a lot of women in my clinic in the 60-65 age bracket who have never had sex education, their partners have never had sex education and they don’t really want to know all that.”

Of course, if a woman isn’t bothered by a lack of sex, then there’s no reason to see a doctor, Faubion and Thomas said. But they both said that previous studies have shown that around 10-15% of women who have less interest in sex are bothered by it and would like to seek a solution.

There are ways doctors can help, including medications and therapies, but a woman must first reach out and talk to her doctor.

“Previous research has shown that women are often genuinely hesitant to contact their doctor, perhaps because they’re embarrassed or they see it as part of normal aging and don’t think it’s worth it. talk,” Thomas said.

Faubion added: “Bottom line: women should speak to their providers if they have concerns about their sexual health. It’s an important part of life, and there are solutions for women who struggle with it.


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