From making you happy to improving your health, there’s every good reason to reboot your sex life in middle age, writes Suzi Godson.
SEX in middle age can be a troublesome business. How many midlifers will admit they’re not doing it as much as they could be? Long-term relationships may have gone off the boil or dissolved altogether. And even the most dedicated of couples are likely to be dealing with stressful jobs, children and elderly parents.
None of which is exactly conducive to passion. However, this is the age where sex is arguably more important than ever. Not only is it proven to improve relationships and marriages, there is plenty of research to show that continuing to have sex is great for your immune system, cardiac health and muscle strength.
Sex makes us happy and keeps us healthy. Research from Queens University in Belfast, which tracked the mortality rate of 1,000 middle-aged men, found that the death rate halved for those who reported the highest number of orgasms. Research at the University of Chicago shows that couples aged 57 to 85 who still have sex rate their general health as better than couples who don’t and that those in a close relationship were more likely to describe their health as “very good” or “excellent”.
How much sex do you need to have for it to be beneficial?
Anything is better than nothing, but once a week seems to be the accepted benchmark. In 2017 Wright and Jenks replicated the results of their 2016 study and found weekly sex was associated with higher scores on tests of attention, memory, fluency, language and visuospatial ability. At the University of Toronto, Amy Muise, Ulrich Schimmack and Emily Impett conducted three studies with more than 30,000 participants and found sex and relationship satisfaction peaked at a frequency of once a week. Less than once a week was associated with lower levels of satisfaction and wellbeing, but having sex 10 times a week brought no additional benefits.
However, figures from Britain’s third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) showed that in 1990 the median frequency for sex was five times every four weeks. By 2013 that figure had fallen to three, and for people over 50 it was just twice a month.
But what if you just don’t feel like doing it any more?
Not being interested in sex was the most common sexual difficulty reported by men and women in the Natsal-3 survey, and it was twice as common in women as it was in men. Research also shows that, regardless of gender, people who report a lack of interest in sex also report finding it difficult to talk about it. Lack of interest is probably the most complex sexual problem to solve because it is usually caused by a mix of factors.
In midlife, confidence can take a nosedive along with body satisfaction, amid a sense that there is not much left to look forward to. If there are no physical problems and the relationship is essentially solid, the key to resurrecting sexual desire is often to focus on improving your emotional connection. Making time for each other and demonstrating respect, appreciation and physical affection is the ultimate midlife foreplay.
We’ve stopped having sex altogether
Research from Georgia State University suggests that about 15% of married couples are “sexless”, which is defined as having sex 10 or fewer times a year. I suspect that figure is an underestimate.
In 2010 I conducted a sexual frequency study with 3,500 participants and found that 20% were not having sex at all and 23% were having sex only once a month. If a relationship is in trouble, but both partners are committed to it, the best way to restore intimacy is to have couples counselling. If a couple are essentially happy with each other then, theoretically, sexlessness is not a huge problem. However, it is fundamental to health, happiness and general life satisfaction, so it is always worth trying to resurrect a dormant sex life.
Once sex has stopped it can feel embarrassing even talking about it. In my survey 39% of participants said they found it “somewhat” or “very difficult” to talk about sex and 10% didn’t talk about sex with their partner at all. However, a wealth of research shows that being able to talk about sex with a partner is a very reliable measure of relational and sexual satisfaction.
If you can have the conversation and you are both willing to try, you might want to consider talking to a sex therapist. Your therapist may suggest that you try sensate focus, a mindful sex technique that teaches you how to be present to sensation and experience during sex. If you are too shy to see a therapist you can Google “sensate focus” and try to follow the guidelines at home.
You will need to set aside one hour a week to do the exercises. Start by taking five-minute turns touching each other with your clothes on. This touch should be affectionate and exploratory, and should avoid any genital or sexual contact. If body image is a barrier to intimacy, turn the lights off and touch each other by candlelight. When you feel comfortable touching and being touched, remove your clothes and repeat the process. If you begin to feel aroused, you may be ready to progress to manual or oral stimulation, but don’t rush it. You must stop when the hour is up. When you find yourself desperately looking forward to next week’s session, you are just about ready to go all the way.
Should I try using Viagra?
In midlife the male erection stops being quite so reliable and if a man becomes anxious about failure, he is more likely to avoid sex than put himself in a position where he risks being humiliated.
Taking Viagra can help to make your erection firmer and that can be very reassuring for a man who gets anxious about going soft at an inopportune time. Middle-aged men can get worried about softer erections, but they forget that, as women age, their vaginal walls get thinner, so an erection that is less than rock solid can be a blessing.
Viagra is not a recreational drug, but it is no longer viewed as a medication that should only be used to treat serious erectile dysfunction. As long as you don’t have a heart condition, you can buy it over the counter in most big pharmacies.
Can hormones help to improve my sex drive?
During the menopause, declining oestrogen thins the vaginal tissue and decreased blood flow to the genitals can reduce sensitivity and make it harder to achieve orgasm. However, a flagging sex drive is not inevitable and if you continue to have sex you help to keep your vaginal tissue healthy. If dryness and sensitivity are a problem, oestrogen treatments such as Estring, the estradiol-releasing vaginal ring, can help.
Declining hormones at menopause have been shown to exacerbate age-related memory decline. However, hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) has had a lot of bad press, so women are wary. The best thing to do is talk to your GP. There has been a great deal of research into HRT and the medical consensus is that for women who do not have a high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, a short blast of appropriately prescribed low-dose HRT can be transformative. It improves sleep, memory and libido, and generally makes you feel better. The International Menopause Society regards HRT as a first-line treatment for the prevention of osteoporosis in women under 60 and the Endocrine Society cites studies that suggest that women using HRT gain less weight or body fat than non-HRT users.
Will changing my diet and exercise help?
Exercise increases the production of dopamine, as does sex, and dopamine is also integral to cognitive function. Research by the University of California found men who took an hour of aerobic exercise four times a week experienced an increase in sexual frequency and sexual satisfaction. Interestingly, this better and more frequent sex turned out to be caused by positive changes in body image and self-confidence, rather than improvements in stamina or strength.
There is not enough research on the relationship between diet and sex. I know the general consensus is that people who eat a healthy, balanced diet should not really need supplements, but I would argue that midlife is an exception. It may be placebo, but adding vitamin B12, magnesium and an age-appropriate multivitamin to a largely Mediterranean diet certainly won’t do you any harm and they might keep everything in working order for a bit longer.