Why sex is good for you

We all know sex can make you feel physically good, but there is growing evidence that it can also make you healthier and help you live longer, reports Sophie Scott.

When it comes to living longer, having a good sex life isn’t something that immediately springs to mind. But even the thought of sex can be healthy, raising your heart rate slightly and releasing a range of positive hormones into your body. Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast tracked the death rates of 1000 middle-aged men over 10 years and found that those men who had the most orgasms had HALF the death rate of those who were less sexually active. A follow-on study revealed that having sex three or more times a week reduced men’s risks of heart attack and stroke by half.

Australian sexologist Dr Gabrielle Morrisey confirms regular sex is good for the heart, circulation and immune system, backing up Queen’s University’s findings and others by Wilkes University, Pennsylvania. It discovered that people having sex once or twice a week had one-third higher levels of a substance called immunoglobulin A, which is well known to boost immunity. But wait, there’s more! Sex is also good for your general wellbeing, is a mild antidepressant, can ease anxiety – and has a big impact on the prostate. A study of almost 30,000 men by the US-based National Cancer Institute found the more men had sex, the less likely they were to develop prostate cancer. And there is good evidence that having more sex can prevent erectile dysfunction (ED) in older men. A study of a thousand Finnish men found those who had sex three times or more each week only had a quarter of the risk of developing ED. Of course, the benefits of a good sex life are not just physical. Touch makes us feel good and makes us feel loved. Touch creates emotional intimacy and increases self-esteem. Anne Hollonds from Relationships Australia says sexual intimacy is one thing that separates the relationship with your partner from the other relationships in your life. Sexual intimacy makes it different and special, and enables you to have a deeper level of emotional intimacy with your partner,
she says.

Better or worse?
There’s no doubt, however, that sex changes significantly as you age – although Gabrielle Morrisey points out, sex changes throughout our lives, as libido fluctuates. For many older people, sex gets better. But for others, problems can emerge. If you have a partner, it’s important to accept that your libido may differ from theirs and the idea is to find a middle ground with which you are both happy. When it comes to a reduced libido, Dr Sue Reddish from the Jean Hailes Foundation says it’s important to rule out a number of causes. “You need to look at relationship problems, health problems such as diabetes, thyroid disease, alcohol abuse and chronic pain, medications such as antidepressants, mood disorders and past experiences and expectations of sex,” she says.

The physical and emotional intimacy that comes from a good sex life is crucial to happiness and wellbeing. So if things are not as good in the bedroom as you would like, take action. Start by ruling out any underlying medical causes and, if that gets the all clear, think about whether you might benefit from some therapy to uncover the source of the problems.

Women’s business
One thing that can interfere with a healthy sex life is changing hormones. Lack of oestrogen can cause dryness of the vaginal tissues, making sex uncomfortable and even painful. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can make a difference. But whether to try hormone replacement therapy is a decision each individual woman needs to make, with her doctor.

If you don’t wish to have HRT, you can still apply oestrogen topically to the vagina, if dryness is a problem. Sexual health physician Dr Terri Foran says vaginal tablets can provide swift relief from symptoms and over-the-counter vaginal moisturisers are very effective. Adrienne, 62 – hormone havoc I was at the tail end of my marriage when I went through menopause. Both played havoc with my hormones and my sex life. I found HRT helped enormously, though I have stopped taking it now. Since I got divorced my sex life has been erratic, though not necessarily unfulfilling. I don’t have a steady partner but I have a male friend I have known for a long time. He is divorced and we go to social events together. My children would be horrified to know that it was more than platonic. I am not ready for a full relationship after a long marriage and neither is he. This way we can enjoy each other’s company – the close bonds of friendship with some added benefits. Some women may prefer to try herbal and complementary treatments to balance their hormones. If you do decide to see a herbalist or naturopath, it’s crucial to check their ualifications and ask about their training and history to ensure they are suitably qualified.

Mark Stibich, who writes about longevity, talks about the emotions that can impact sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. “How women perceive themselves as they age greatly impacts sexual desire. In our culture, we are constantly surrounded by youth and there is little to reassure older men and women that they are still sexually attractive and beautiful,” he says. Sexy isn’t being young and thin. It’s being confident in yourself. Men and women of all shapes and sizes can be sexy, sensual and erotic. What’s important is embracing your own sexuality with a loving, supportive partner. While it’s certainly easier said than done, try not to be influenced by images around you. Feel beautiful and happy within your own body.

Men and hormones
Unlike women, men don’t undergo a rapid reduction in hormones when they reach their 50s. But men’s hormone levels do drop by around one per cent each year after the age of 30. By the time men are over 60, one in five will show signs of low testosterone. But whether to top up levels remains a tricky question, because the therapy is only effective if a diagnosis of androgen deficiency has been proven. If testosterone therapy is given to a man with normal levels, his body will stop producing its own hormones. Diagnosis of low testosterone requires at least two blood tests performed in the morning (testosterone is highest at that time). If low levels of testosterone are diagnosed, men can opt for injections every two weeks, a slow release patch, daily capsules, or a pellet which is inserted into the abdomen. James, 50 – keep it sexy Sex hasn’t changed really since I have got older. I’d like to think I have got better at it. It is very important that you continue to make an effort to be sexy and attractive to your partner. Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean you should stop trying. I have always made an effort
to look and act sexy and my partner has too. I am with someone now who has the same level of sex drive as me, which is great. It is all tied up with how you feel.If you act sexy and dress well you will feel better about yourself and your partner will find you more attractive.

The ‘i’ word
Some men will be plagued by impotence. The good news is that about half to three-quarters of all cases of impotence are linked to physical causes, most of which can be reversed. Often men’s sexual health is closely tied to their general health, so if they are abusing alcohol, cigarettes and not exercising, then it can show up as difficulties in bed. This is certainly the view of urologist Dr Phillip Katelaris, who says ED is due to vascular disease, with obesity, highfat diets, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, poorly controlled diabetes and smoking common risk factors. Advances in medicine mean that there is a range of good treatments for impotence. In most cases, men will get good results and be able to resume a normal, fulfilling sex life. Medications such as Viagra, Levitra and Cialis, which have an enzyme that increases blood flow to the penis, are effective and well tolerated. Most men can take the drugs safely, apart from those who are prescribed nitrate drugs to treat ischaemic heart disease. The alternatives include surgery and injections, while for those men where psychological issues (such as anxiety)
are a factor, counselling can help.

Paul, 62 – the pills are worth it
I began to notice problems in my late
50s – that things weren’t as good as they
could be in the bedroom. It was about the
same time as I was diagnosed with high
cholesterol. Initially I was reluctant to get
help for my erection problems. But my
wife Cathy talked to our GP and I went
to see him. I now take one of the newer
impotence drugs. It’s not perfect, but it does
make sex more satisfying. I don’t feel old
and I wasn’t ready to give up my sex life.
Medication has really helped.

Sex therapists say many people make the mistake of thinking keeping passion alive is easy. Often sexual problems are the result of resentment in relationships, so focus on eliminating negative feelings that can turn relationship problems into sexual problems. Keeping in touch with your sexual self, no matter what your age, is crucial. As the research shows, the benefits to your health and longevity from maintaining a loving, fun sex life are clear.

Does your sex life need a little care and attention? Find out how to reboot your sex life with this article from Canada’s Zoomer Magazine.