Men have shorter life spans than women on average, but when it comes to sexual life expectancy, the guys have the advantage.
At age 55, men have an average of 15 years of sexual activity ahead of them, while women average just 10, according to a new survey of middle-age and older Americans.
"Overall, men were more likely than women to be sexually active, to report a good quality sex life, and to be interested and thinking about sex on a regular basis," lead researcher Stacy Tessler Lindau, director of the Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine at the University of Chicago, told LiveScience.
Sex and gender gap
Few studies have examined the connection between sexual health and aging. To do so, Lindau and her team used data from two nationally representative surveys of 3,000 25- to 74-year-olds and another 3,000 57- to 86-year-olds. The respondents answered questions about their general health as well as their sexual activity, sexual satisfaction and desire.
Much of the news was good. In middle age, two-thirds of women and men report good quality sex. The researchers also found people in good or excellent health were almost twice as likely to be interested in sex compared with those in poor or fair health. Good or excellent health at age 55 added five to seven years to men's sexual life expectancy and three to six years to women's.
But the study also uncovered a sexual gender gap. For 30-year-old men, they can expect 35 years more of sexual activity and 45 years more of life. Thirty-year-old women can expect 31 more years of sexual activity, but 50 more years of life. That means men will spend 78 percent of life after 30 having sex, compared with just 61 percent for women.
The gap increases with age. At 75 and older, 40 percent of men were sexually active compared with just 17 percent of women. The disparity is driven largely by the fact that women tend to outlive their male partners, Lindau said. In women and men with partners, the gap disappears.
More sex questions
Other findings open up new questions. Among women in late life who were having sex, only half called the sex good. In comparison, almost two-thirds of men aged 75 and up found their sex lives satisfying. That finding troubles Lindau.
"Only half of the women in this age group who are sexually active say that they have a good sex life," she said. "Why is this, and what can be done to maximize not just sexual function, but quality of sex life?"
Part of the answer may be pharmacological. Men who responded to the sexual health questions in 2005 and 2006 reported a significantly increased interest in sex compared with men who took the survey 10 years earlier. Women didn't show a change. That might not be a coincidence, Lindau said.
"Over time, we've seen the introduction of really effective treatments for male erectile dysfunction, which is one of the most common problems for men as they get older," she said. "For women we haven't seen the same."
The study gives researchers a new understanding of who might benefit from policies to address later-life sexual health, Lindau said.
But, she said, there are still huge gaps in that understanding. Because almost all of the survey respondents identified as heterosexual, researchers know almost nothing about the sexual health of older gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals. Those populations are particularly vulnerable, Lindau said, because they may keep problems from their doctors for fear of discrimination or judgment.
"We really need that data," Lindau said.
The study was published online March 9 by the British Medical Journal.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.