Women grow increasingly satisfied with their sex lives after they turn 40, a new study suggests.
For some, that heightened satisfaction comes from having great sex; for others, it stems from the fact that while their sexual activity has decreased, so has their desire, the survey showed.
The researchers surveyed a group of women between ages 40 and 100, with a median age of 67. Half of the responders said they were sexually active, and most of those women said they were able to become aroused, maintain lubrication and achieve orgasm during sex, even after the age of 80.
Moreover, among sexually active women, those who were below age 55 or above 80 were the most likely to report satisfaction with their ability to achieve orgasms.
"I was surprised by how many people were completely satisfied over the age of 80," said study researcher Elizabeth Barrett-Connor. The number of women who weren't sexually active but still expressed satisfaction surprised her as well. "I think there's a whole range of reasons people might be sexually satisfied," she said.
The study was published in the January issue of the American Journal of Medicine.
The benefits of trust
The study was the first of its size to focus exclusively on the sex lives of healthy women, a shift from previous efforts that had centered on studying women with sexual dysfunction, or tested the effects of hormone therapy on women's sex lives, Barrett-Connor said.
The researchers mailed a questionnaire to 1,303 women who had participated in the Rancho Bernardo Study, a survey of people in a suburban California community that has been ongoing since 1972. Of these women, 806 responded to questions about sex, "a very high participation rate for a study that asks very personal questions," Barrett-Connor said. "We have been studying this population for many years, and they trust us."
More than half of all women surveyed said they were very or moderately satisfied with their sex life. The percentage of women who described themselves as sexually satisfied increased with age. Almost half of the women over age 80 said they were always or almost always sexually satisfied.
Only 20 percent of sexually active women across all surveyed age groups reported high sexual desire, and of these, too, most said they were moderately or very satisfied with their sex life.
The women lived independently in the community, and not in assisted living facilities or nursing homes.
Toward a more intimate understanding
Because research has shown that women tend to desire sex less, and reduce their sexual activity, as they age, the new finding that women become more satisfied with their sex lives as they get older raises two possible explanations, Barrett-Connor said. It may be that those who are not sexually active "have achieved sexual satisfaction through touching, caressing, or other intimacies that have developed over the course of a long relationship," according to the study.
The other explanation is that some older women who have no intimate contact of any kind are perfectly happy about it.
The researchers would have delved more deeply into what specifically women find satisfying, but the questionnaire had to strike "a careful balance between questions we thought people would answer" and more intimate detail, Barrett-Connor said.
Despite the fact that sexual activity drops off in older women, it remains a significant part of the lives of many. "What was new was really the high rate of sexual activity," Barrett-Connor said. Half of the respondents reported engaging in sexual activity of some kind, with or without a partner, in the past month.
Although most sexually active women in the study were under age 65, the majority of the women who remained sexually active into their 70s and beyond retained the ability to become aroused, maintain lubrication and achieve orgasm during sex. The researchers can't say whether continued sexual activity leads to continued sexual function, or if it's the other way around, Barrett-Connor said.
"In most of the studies of sex dysfunction, the main complaint of young people is that they have low interest in sex," Barrett-Connor said. "These [older] women were also not thinking about sex, planning about sex ahead of time, longing for sex, but they did have sex activity that was satisfactory to them."
The findings in the Rancho Bernardo survey probably don't apply to every community. Study participants were a well-educated group of upper-middle class women, who generally live a healthy lifestyle, Barrett-Connor said.
Nevertheless, "these data do suggest that if you hang in there, there's a good satisfying relationship for a lot of elderly people."
Pass it on: For older people, there are multiple paths to sexual satisfaction.
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