Over-70s still sexually active…But STIs are on the rise

elderly coupleThe majority us probably think that people tend to lose all trace of a sex life as they get older, and certainly the thought of our grandparents being intimate would be the last thing on our mind…but it seems more and more people into their 70s, 80s and beyond, are maintaining fairly active sex lives.

The findings of a recent study suggest that adults over the age of 70 are having sex at least twice each month. In addition to this, rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as syphilis and genital warts seem to be spiralling amongst older people.

Reporting in ‘The Conversation’, Sharron Hinchliff, Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sheffield, argues that sex amongst older adults should be more openly discussed, given the statistics.

She says: “A report published earlier this year found that those with a sexual partner tended to rate their quality of life as higher than those without one, although some studies have placed greater emphasis on relationship status and social engagement. When I interviewed a number of over-50s about their (heterosexual) sex lives for a qualitative study, I found that many who were still in sexual relationships rated them as very or extremely important.

The reasons for the participants’ emphasis on sex included strengthening their relationship with their partners but also pleasure. For some women, sex had improved with age, which they related to feeling more relaxed because they had more sexual experience and no longer feared becoming pregnant.”

Sharron also argues that sexual health campaigns tend to primarily focus on the younger demographic, as these are the ones at risk from not only sexually transmitted infections, but unplanned pregnancies following the failure to use condoms.

Between the years 2009 and 2013, STI rates within the the over-45s increased across different diseases, with an 11% rise in genital warts amongst men aged 45-64, and a staggering 500% rise in syphilis cases for women over the age of 65. According to Sharron, “The majority of diagnoses of all STIs in the older age groups were in men, but gonorrhoea and syphilis were highest among heterosexual women and men who have sex with men.”

She continued: “As a result, some sexual health campaigns are now being aimed at older people.

This year’s Sexual Health Week in the UK is focused on sexual pleasure and well-being – and one of the campaign’s five strands is aimed at educating professionals and the public about the sexual well-being of older people.

Campaigns that promote sexual pleasure are new, even though the idea of incorporating pleasure into sexual health materials is not.

Young people in the UK are only just seeing such messages so it’s great that the sexual pleasure of older people is now being recognised too. But infectious disease is only one factor that can affect pleasure and well-being.

Long-term conditions and some sexual difficulties are more likely to be diagnosed in our 50s or later.

These include erectile dysfunction, which affects around 30 per cent of men aged 65-74, and uncomfortable vaginal dryness, experienced by 20 per cent of women in the same age group.”

Previously, it could be assumed that the older generation may struggle to meet prospective new partners for sex, particularly after experiencing poor health or becoming widowed, but Sharron sheds light on this.

“There is evidence that some older people are embracing technology and going online to meet potential partners for a sexual relationship. One survey found that 38% of people aged 50-59 and 37% of those aged 60-69 had met their partners online.

We should perhaps also reconsider what we think about as sexual activity when it comes to older people. For one thing, many older people engage in masturbation for sexual pleasure, countering the notion that it is a sexual act pursued only by the young. But there is also evidence that ideas about what activities count as sexual become broader as we age. For some, actions such as playing footsie under the breakfast table can give the intimacy that sexual activity previously had.

While research into the sexual well-being of older people is growing, there are gaps that wait to be filled, particularly the ways that ageing intersects with gender identity, sexual orientation, social class, disability and ethnic group. Exploring these areas will develop our understanding of sexual pleasure in older age, and better inform services for those to whom sex is important.”

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