Sexual Activity and Sexual Problems Both Common In Late Life Interview with:
David M. Lee PhD MPH

Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research
The University of Manchester Manchester UK

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: These data on sexual health and wellbeing were collected in the latest phase of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). ELSA is a representative survey of a cohort aged 50 to >90 years, and has gathered detailed longitudinal data since 2002 on changes in health, economic and social circumstances as people prepare for and move into retirement and old age.

Our research asked over 7000 men and women taking part in ELSA a wide range of questions about their sexual lives; including their attitudes to sex, how sexually active they were and what problems and concerns they experienced with their sexual health.

Around two-thirds of men and over half of women in this survey thought ‘good sexual relations were essential to the maintenance of a long-term relationship’ or ‘being sexually active was physically and psychologically beneficial to older people’.

We found that half of men and almost a third of women aged 70 and over were still sexually active, with around a third of these sexually active older people having sexual intercourse twice a month or more. Sexual problems were relatively common, however, with a third of sexually active women reporting difficulties becoming sexually aroused or achieving orgasm. For men difficulties getting and maintaining an erection was the most common problem, reported by 40% of those who were sexually active. Chronic health conditions and poor self-rated health seemed to have more obvious negative impacts on the sexual health of men compared to women.

Men were more concerned about their sexual activities and function than women and, with increasing age, these concerns tended to become more common. Take a look at Men’s Review Zone for help with and solutions for any problems you may be experiencing. Sexually active women were less dissatisfied with their overall sex lives than men, and also reported decreasing levels of dissatisfaction with increasing age.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Response: Health professionals should be open to discussing sexual health concerns with older adults and proactive in offering treatment and counselling to maximize sexual health and wellbeing. Although men’s sexual activities and function appear more impacted by chronic conditions and poorer overall health compared to women, interventions for couples should not ignore situational and relational factors potentially affecting both sexual partners. After all , spouses and sexual partners do not live in isolation and the management of older adults’ sexual health to improve quality of life and wellbeing should ideally involve both partners.

We hope our findings improve public health by countering stereotypes and misconceptions about late-life sexuality, and offer older people a reference against which they may relate their own experiences and expectations. While it may comfort people to know that they are not alone in enjoying an active sex life as they age or in experiencing sexual problems, we’re not advocating a ‘one size fits all’ model of sexual ageing. Our ongoing research is increasingly highlighting the diversity of late-life sexualities, and trying to impose youthful norms of sexual health on older people seems over-simplistic and even unhelpful.

We hope our research will also encourage a more open discourse about late-life sexuality and health, and foster wider intergenerational understanding that sex doesn’t stop at 50!

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: Understanding sexuality across the lifecourse requires multidisciplinary and broad-based data sources in order to examine the social, psychological and biological correlates of sexual health and function. Recent research on sexuality and aging has tended to focus on medicalized notions of desire, capacity and dysfunction, particularly among older men in relation to erectile problems. However, this medical perspective, which highlights physical and mental health concomitants of ageing and their effect on sexuality, is increasingly being replaced by a broader biopsychosocial perspective. This alternative view explicitly considers biology (health and illness), psychological influences (knowledge, attitudes) and relationship characteristics (quality, satisfaction) as key influences on sexual functioning.

Finally, we need longitudinal data to allow us to follow the same people over time. This would allow an examination of the temporal and, potentially, causal relationships between biological, psychological and social factors, and sexuality during ageing.


Sexual Health and Well-being Among Older Men and Women in England: Findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing

David M. Lee, James Nazroo, Daryl B. O’Connor, Margaret Blake, Neil Pendleton

Archives of Sexual Behavior January 2015

[wysija_form id=”1″] Interview with:, & David M. Lee PhD MPH (2015). Sexual Activity and Sexual Problems Both Common In Late Life

Last Updated on February 1, 2015 by Marie Benz MD FAAD