What happens when you age – a scientist debunks popular myths about sex and brain power

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People over the age of 65 make up a larger percentage of the global population than ever before. As this ageing of society only really took off in the last century, it’s unsurprising that much of what we think we know about ageing is untrue.

The “facts” about ageing depict people as becoming somehow less – less capable, less vibrant, less flexible, less sexual and less fulfilled. But how many of these “facts” hold up to scrutiny? Let’s investigate five common beliefs.

Libido and sexual activity decrease
This is not true. Hormone levels change as we age, but this doesn’t necessarily decrease libido. Indeed, for women, libido often increases after the menopause.

Older people’s libido may be lowered by chronic illness (such as diabetes and heart disease), drug side effects (antihypertensive drugs, for example) and marital unhappiness and boredom. So decreases in sexual desire in old age are often due to events and circumstances, not to physical changes that come with age.

Having a sexual partner, however, is the strongest factor for determining how often older people have sex. Because women tend to marry older men, who die younger, older women’s reduced sexual activity is largely due to widowhood. Again, it’s not ageing per se that lowers libido and sexual activity, but events and circumstances that typically accompany ageing.

Brain function decreases because of age
Not true. Our neurons work differently in older age, and older people can have difficulties with thinking and remembering. But, as with sex, these abilities are strongly influenced by our social circumstances. For example, mental abilities are closely linked to supportive social relationships and physical and mental activity. Because we can change our social circumstances, we are likely able to offset the physical effects of ageing on our mental abilities.

We often treat young and middle-aged people’s mental abilities as the gold standard, but this is biased and leads to false conclusions. As we get older, we may think differently and at different speeds (we have more to remember), but this doesn’t make our thinking less keen, deep, creative, productive or meaningful. After all Peter Roget invented the thesaurus at 76 and Michelangelo drew up architectural plans for the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs at 88.

You become more conservative
Not so. Imagine ten people: one aged ten, one 20, one 30 and so on. The oldest is less liberal than the 60-year-old, who is less liberal than the 40-year-old, and so on. You might conclude people get more conservative with age. But you’d be incorrectly assuming that each person started out with the same political outlook.

A 100-year-old woman, born in 1918, formed her baseline political opinions in a very different time. What was liberal in the 1940s is conservative now (consider race relations, feminism and sexual norms). What you’re seeing is a 100-year-old whose political opinions have become less conservative, but remain more conservative than her children’s or grandchildren’s opinions, who began their lives on a more liberal footing. This is what researchers in the US found in their study of political attitudes among different age groups over 30 years. They concluded that “change is as common among older adults as younger adults”.

You become less happy
Happily, this is untrue. As a sociologist at the University of Chicago found, while happiness dips between the ages of 30 to 40, “overall levels of happiness increase with age, net of other factors”.

Why? First, younger people may be exposed to stressful events that older, retired, people are protected from, such as dips in wages or periods of unemployment. Second, the older we get, the more we tend to focus on positive memories and information, and the better we become at regulating our emotions. And this upward trend continues until we’re “essentially dying”.

Your immune system weakens
It does, overall, but older people’s immune systems vary enormously. Remember the 100-year-old who become more liberal over time? She would have been 11 when the Great Depression began. As a result, she would probably have undergone puberty while financially, socially and nutritionally stressed. Poor nutrition would have weakened her immune system in the immediate and the longer term.

As researchers in France have found, being malnourished weakens the immune system, especially the very young and the very old, so if our 100-year-old woman was undernourished as an older woman, she’d be doubly disadvantaged on the immunity front.

But she might also be less likely to catch a cold. We become immune for years, and sometimes even for a lifetime, to a specific virus after we are infected with it. Over time, we become immune to more and more viruses, so, the older we get, the fewer viruses can make use sick – assuming, of course, that we’re not deluged by a mass of new viruses. Again, it’s how we connect – and have connected – with the outside world that shapes our older age.The Conversation

Dana Rosenfeld, Reader in Sociology, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Total Comments: 20
  1. 0

    Agreed that happiness increases with age, but bodily functions decrease, including sex hormones. Do your own research. There is a lot of wishful thinking in this article

  2. 0

    Do men want more sex than women? Yes!

  3. 0

    From personal experience I want sex more often than my partner who is younger than me but we still have a great roll in hay quite often.

  4. 0

    who wrote this lot of garbage, I am 68 and have many younger and older female friends who are all still married, apart from one who can’t wait to jump in bed with her hubby, we are ALL less interested in sex than our partners, we are happy, mentally healthy and not as conservative as this article says. We all have a great time with our partners otherwise we still wouldn’t be married to them

  5. 0

    There comes a time when it doesn’t feel quite comfortable to rub ‘wrinklies’ together and that time is determined by many factors. But it isn’t the end of the world when sexual desire wanes, you just enter a different stage of existence where other things take more precedence!

  6. 0

    I would have to agree with the debunking, – when I was young I used to have sex, either with a girfriend or looking after myself, between once and twice/day, – as time went on I noticed that it was generally, – not always but generally, tied to the moon, as the moon went towards full, it was twice a day, after the full moon, maybe once every two or three days, and averaged out between those two the rest of the time, – still the same now I am turning 70.
    The other parameter is the partner, one of the significant elements in a sexual relationship is the satisfaction of your partner, so if you meet a partner who you satisfy and who wants to satisfy you, you will have a lot more sex than otherwise, – even to extremes, – when I was in my early 20ties i met such a woman and came 7 times in one night, but nothing like that until when I was in my 50ies when I had a relationship with a Nymphomaniac, and came 6 times on that first night, so that ability was not so greatly reduced, but I would have to emphasize the triggering aspect, the which does not continue, the Nymphomaniac needed more sex than I or any male could give so it was not long before she sought extra, elsewhere, – which takes the shine off such a situation, and is not emotionally sustainable.
    After years of abstinence, I met an older Thai woman, who regards every erection as an accomplishment worthy of her attention, and that seems to me to be a happy medium, and a recipe for a happy man, – what different women might think about that I would be interested to hear.

    • 0

      lol Lookfar, sounds like a perfect relationship now, go for it.
      have to agree, my desire is still there, sometimes the body wants a rest lol.
      Thai women (& most Asian women) know how to pamper & spoil a man especially if the man is caring & looks after them & looks after himself as well & not be a slob.
      Unfortunately most western woman don’t care about a man’s desires & just tell us we are dirty old men. Affection & romance is a lost word with a lot of western women.
      I’ll duck for shelter now lol.

    • 0

      SFR….You are lucky that Thai women enjoy stroking body carpets and saggy gonads for peanuts all their lives instead of getting an education and not depending on old Western males to keep them.

      Western women are not lazy, they get educated so that they don’t have to pretend anything.

    • 0

      I didn’t say they where lazy just couldn’t care less about their partners needs. And that’s from my personal experience over many years.
      Many Thai & Asian women are well educated and age has nothing to do with it. All the men I know with Asian wives or partners there isn’t much age gap between them and most of the wives & partners work unless both retired.

    • 0

      SFR… You are right Western women are not interested in the incompetent sexual needs of aged western men and neither are well educated Thai and Asian women with good jobs. It’s sad they don’t have pensions in their countries too.

    • 0

      There are pensions available in Thailand Jacki.
      quite obvious your urges, libido etc has gone south, that’s ok it happens. Same as some men as well, urges libido gone south.
      But i know many women, men & couples are active well into their 70’s & up.
      And viagra doesn’t get a man the urge for sex, viagra doesn’t stimulted.
      No, I don’t use viagra either, no need to.
      There’s some very good reading by Bettina Arndt but you’d most likely not be interested.

    • 0

      SFR….Pensions do not exist for ordinary workers in Thailand. Most females in low paid work provide sexual services to supplement their low wages.


    • 0

      Pensions do exist but as the article says, not for all especially the self employed.
      I also find it quite disgusting that you see most Thai women in low income jobs as some form of prostitute, typical western thinking not even worth commenting on.

  7. 0

    The aging process is normal. As you get older you can no longer what you did when you were young and accept it if your brain is still normal. Older women that are still sexually active must be blind. Saggy gonads and body carpet are revolting.

    • 0

      Actually Jackie, if you love someone and they love you, all that ageing stuff is irrelevant, -however I admit that there are men who ditch their wives when they get older, despite the saggy tits and tummies were caused by their (both) children.
      These men are below contempt, as are the women who do that same judgemental thing.
      – Beauty is ephemeral, Relationships are Primal.
      There is rarely anything in our lives that are as important as our relationships.


    • 0

      Lookfar..Relationships based on sex never last but the ones based on friendship do. Women past it accept it but many older males rely on viagra because they can’t accept they are past it.

  8. 0

    Man is ready for sex anytime until aging or illness destroys the nervous system.

    I was quite able, anytime anywhere till 56 when I got chronic nerve pain and that was the end of of the physical enjoyment.

    By 65 the libido was so suppressed by pain management drugs I was beginning to wonder, what it was all about and what the hell was I doing in my youth, addicted to the feeling of being up close with females.

    At 70 I am looking around at the young people and thinking, a mans got to be a bloody idiot, what a strange way to behave. Sex must win over logic every time.



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