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Why good sex is bad for older men’s health but great for older women

Sex in old age is “like trying to shoot pool with a rope”, American comedian George Burns once said. Limp jokes aside, a new study suggests serious issues for older men who have sex frequently (and enjoy it): a higher risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.

For older women, however, good sex may actually lower the risk of hypertension, according to the study by Michigan State University (MSU) funded by the US National Institutes of Health. The study, published online on September 6 in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, is said to be the first large-scale study of how sex affects heart health later in life.

“These findings challenge the widely held assumption that sex brings uniform health benefits to everyone,” says Hui Liu, MSU associate professor of sociology.

Liu and colleagues analysed survey data from 2,204 people in the US National Social Life, Health and Ageing Project. Participants were aged 57-85 when the first wave of data was collected in 2005-06; another round of data was collected five years later. Cardiovascular risk was measured as hypertension, rapid heart rate, elevated C-reactive protein and general cardiovascular events: heart attack, heart failure and stroke.

Older men who had sex once a week or more were much more likely to experience cardiovascular events five years later than men who were sexually inactive, the study found. This risk was not found among older women.

“Strikingly, we find that having sex once a week or more puts older men at a risk for experiencing cardiovascular events that is almost two times greater than older men who are sexually inactive,” says Liu. “Moreover, older men who found sex with their partner extremely pleasurable or satisfying had higher risk of cardiovascular events than men who did not feel so.”

She says the findings suggest the strain and demands from a sexual relationship may be more relevant for men as they get older, become increasingly frail and suffer more sexual problems.

“Because older men have more difficulties reaching orgasm for medical or emotional reasons than do their younger counterparts, they may exert themselves to a greater degree of exhaustion and create more stress on their cardiovascular system in order to achieve climax.”

Testosterone levels and the use of medication to improve sexual function may also play a role. “Although scientific evidence is still rare,” Liu says, “it is likely that such sexual medication or supplements have negative effects on older men’s cardiovascular health.”

Ultimately, while moderate amounts of sex may promote health among older men, having sex too frequently or too enjoyably may be a risk factor for cardiovascular problems, Liu said. “Physicians should talk to older male patients about potential risks of high levels of sexual activity and perhaps screen those who frequently have sex for cardiovascular issues.”

The converse is true for women: female study participants who found sex to be extremely pleasurable or satisfying had a lower risk of hypertension five years later than female participants who did not feel so. The reasons why are not clear, but Liu suggests one reason could be that the female sexual hormone released during orgasm may promote women’s health.