According to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), sexual health is "the ability to embrace and enjoy our sexuality throughout our lives."
As we get older, the changes to our bodies and certain health conditions can interfere with our ability to participate in and enjoy sex.
Maintaining an active, pleasurable sex life after 50 is possible. The first step is starting an open dialogue with your doctor.
Whether it’s high cholesterol or aches and pains, talking about our health issues is something most of us do without hesitation. But when it comes to sexual and reproductive health for seniors, the conversation doesn't flow as freely. In a recent National Poll on Healthy Aging by the University of Michigan, most respondents (76%) agreed that sex is a vital part of a romantic relationship at any age. Yet only 17% of older adults had brought up the subject of sexual health with their healthcare providers in the past two years.
Why are we so tight-lipped about sex after 50?
A big reason is that sexual health tends to be a taboo topic. Not only that, it’s often surrounded by feelings of fear and anxiety. The problem is that when we avoid discussing a topic, it can become plagued with misconceptions and stereotypes. It can also be harmful to our health. For example, not sharing your sexual struggles with your doctor could cause a serious underlying medical condition to be overlooked. And not communicating openly with your partner can put you both at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like genital herpes, hepatitis B, syphilis, and gonorrhea.
Enjoying fulfilling intimate relationships after 50 means bringing the topic of sexual health out of the dark and into the light. Let’s get the conversation started, shall we?
What is sexual health?
According to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), sexual health is "the ability to embrace and enjoy our sexuality throughout our lives." It means, among other things, being able to enjoy sexual pleasure and satisfaction, having access to sexual health education and resources, and being able to talk freely about sexual health with your partner and others.
Why is sexual health important after 50?
At what age does a man slow down sexually? At what age does a woman stop being sexually active? There’s no specific age when sexuality “stops.” After all, humans are sexual beings by nature—and you don't suddenly lose all interest in sex just because you turn 50.
In fact, sexual health is critically important as we age. First, it allows us to create and maintain emotional intimacy and a sense of closeness with our partner. Sex has also been shown to help reduce stress by releasing a hormone that helps us feel more relaxed.
Being sexually healthy is also closely intertwined with our overall health. For example, engaging in regular sex can reduce our risk for high cholesterol and even lower blood pressure. The reverse is true as well. What effect does physical health have on sexuality? Exercising regularly can help improve stamina, leading to longer-lasting intercourse. It also improves blood flow to sexual organs, which is necessary for both arousal and orgasm.
Our bodies change as we get older—but it doesn’t have to stand in the way of a healthy sex life.
What sexual changes do men and women go through after 50?
The changes men and women undergo during the aging process can have a direct impact on our sexual wellness. For instance:
- Women experience significant changes before, during, and after menopause such as loss of libido, weight gain, hot flashes, hair loss, and lower mood. In addition, the vagina can change shape and lose its natural lubrication, making sex uncomfortable and less enjoyable.
- In men, erectile dysfunction (ED) is common. Achieving an erection may take longer and lack in potency. Prostate changes can occur, too. If you're diagnosed with prostate cancer, the associated treatment can have substantial side effects related to sexual health. Like women, men may also experience a decline in their sexual drive.
Beyond the natural changes of aging, there are a number of lifestyle factors and medical conditions that can affect our sexual health. These include alcohol use, smoking, heart disease, depression, diabetes, and incontinence. Medications can also wreak havoc with sexual pleasure and performance. For example, statins can interfere with the production of sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. Blood pressure medications such as beta-blockers can hinder arousal by causing feelings of depression.
How do I maintain sexual health after 50?
1. Talk to your doctor. Keep in mind that sexual health is just as important as other aspects of your health. If you’ve never broached the subject with your healthcare provider before, now is the time to start. Whether you're experiencing low libido, ED, or vaginal discomfort, you're not alone. There are likely medications and treatments your doctor can suggest to help remedy your symptoms.
If your provider doesn't bring up the topic of sexual health at your next check-up, don't be afraid to initiate a dialogue. It's important to be able to advocate for yourself in order to get the care and guidance you need. Asking questions is a good place to start. Below are some examples of sexual health questions you can pose to your doctor:
- Can we incorporate sexual health into my annual checkups?
- Sex is painful/difficult/impossible for me due to _____. What options do I have to address this problem?
- What are the potential sexual side effects of the medications I'm taking?
- Should I get tested for STDs—and what questions should I ask my partner?
2. Talk to your partner. Discussing sex with your partner may feel uncomfortable at first, but with practice, you’ll feel more at ease. Good communication is essential to a healthy relationship as well as an active, mutually satisfying sex life. Honest discussions can also help protect you both from the health implications of STDs.
Be open about what you expect from an intimate relationship—your likes and dislikes—and encourage your partner to do the same. If libido is a problem, consider issues in the relationship that may be inhibiting your desire for one another. A licensed therapist can help you explore and break through these relationship roadblocks.
3. Live healthy. Generally speaking, what benefits your overall health will also benefit your sex life. That’s why living a healthy life style is a big part of maintaining good sexual health. In addition to seeing your doctor regularly for preventive care and adhering to prescribed medication regimens, take care of yourself by:
- Making smart food choices
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding alcohol in excess
- Avoiding or eliminating tobacco use
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Practicing stress-reduction activities (e.g. yoga or meditation)
Want to know more? Get additional insights on optimizing your health and wellness as you age, from exercise tips to diet and nutrition guidance.
1. National Council on Aging, Aging Mastery Program (AMP), Sexual Health: An Overview.