Sex Tied to Better Brain Power in Older Age

A happy older couple embraces
(Image credit: Older couple photo via Shutterstock)

People over age 50 who are more sexually active also have better memory and cognitive skills than people who get busy less often, a new study from England suggests.

Sex appeared to give men's brains a bigger boost than women's: Men who were more sexually active showed higher scores on tests of memory skills and executive function — the mental processes involved in planning, solving problems and paying attention — whereas women who were more sexually active saw only a higher score in their memory skills, according to the findings, published online Jan. 28 in the journal Age and Ageing.

The study shows that there is a significant association between sexual activity and cognitive function in adults over 50, said study author Hayley Wright, a researcher in cognitive aging at the Centre for Research in Psychology, Behavior and Achievement at Coventry University in England.

The researchers looked at data collected from more than 6,800 men and women ages 50 to 89 in England who were participating in a long-term study on aging. [6 Fun Ways to Sharpen Your Memory]

The participants were asked whether they had engaged in sexual activity over the past 12 months. The researchers used a broad definition of sexual activity in the study — it included having intercourse, masturbating, petting or fondling.

Participants also completed two cognitive tests. One was a recall test designed to measure memory, in which people were asked to remember a list of 10 common words immediately after hearing them, and then again following a brief delay. A second task, which gauged executive function, involved identifying the missing number in a numerical sequence.

Sharper minds

There hasn't been much research on how sexual activity may influence older adults' thinking skills, the researchers said. The few prior studies that investigated the topic showed that sexual activity was linked with better cognition in older men. 

The new study found that sexually active men and women scored higher than sexually inactive adults on the word-recall and number-sequencing tasks.

For older men, the link between scoring more in the bedroom and scoring higher on tests of memory and executive function held even after the researchers took into account other variables that could also affect test outcomes, such as age, education, financial status, health, physical activity and loneliness, the study found.

After similar variables were taken into consideration, the researchers also found that sexually active older women only had higher scores on memory tests than women who were not sexually active. [6 Foods That Are Good For Your Brain]

The reason sexually active older men had higher scores on both the memory test and the executive-function test, whereas women's sex lives appeared to benefit only their memory skills, may be due to hormonal differences that may influence brain function in men and women in different ways, Wright said.

The study demonstrated an association between sexual activity and cognitive function, and was not meant to show a cause-and-effect relationship. It's too early to tell whether sex is one way for older adults to keep their minds sharp or whether it is the other way around — that people who want a long and healthy sex life should start by doing things that are good for the brain, such as being physically and mentally active and eating a healthy diet. 

Wright said that several other research projects will be done as follow-ups to this study. In one of them, which is nearly complete, the researchers are analyzing the data to understand the effect of factors — such as the frequency and type of sexual activity, as well as relationship satisfaction — on cognitive function scores in older adults.

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Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.