We're all happy to accept that fine wine improves with age – becoming more complex, more enjoyable, more valuable – so why not consider the possibility that sexuality develops similarly as it matures?
Sure, your experience of midlife sex (and intimacy beyond midlife) is not likely to be the same as it was in your younger years. But that doesn't mean your sex life is destined to be dull or disappointing. On the contrary.
Healthy individuals can remain sexually active and interested well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s, if they choose to. In fact, when it comes to sex and aging – an active sex life may even help keep you young. Some age-related physical changes may be unavoidable, it's true, but these changes don't have to interfere with being intimate.
The fact is, there's no one "right" way to experience sex. The way you express your sexuality is shaped by your individuality and your personal circumstances. Whether you're single or in a relationship, disabled or able-bodied, young or old, think of your sexuality as a unique part of who you are. By taking a more personal, less prescribed approach to midlife sex – and intimacy far beyond midlife – you allow yourself the freedom to adapt your sex life according to your changing needs.
The first step to maintaining an active, fulfilling sex life is getting to know some of the normal physical changes you're likely to experience as you get older. The next step is being open to making a few simple adjustments to your standard sexual routine.
What to Expect
There are several age-related changes that may affect your sex life. Both men and women experience changes in their bodies as they grow older. You already know that. But did you know that in many ways, aging affects sexuality similarly in women and men? For instance, after a certain age, it takes both men and women longer to become sexually aroused. So rather than worrying about your changing body and slower response time, talk to your partner about being intimate -- he or she may be experiencing something remarkably similar.
Still, there are a few changes that are unique to men or unique to women.
Changes in Women
Growing older, particularly for women, tends to be associated with a significant drop in sex drive, but research related to sex and aging suggests that some women may actually experience more frequent and more intense orgasms as they age. And after menopause -- without the risk of an unplanned pregnancy -- many women find they enjoy sex more fully and freely than ever before.
Nevertheless, most women will experience a number of changes around menopause that may make sexual activity uncomfortable or even painful. The good news is that many of these changes can be easily remedied, and sex can be just as comfortable as it was prior to menopause.
Age-Related Change #1: Vaginal Dryness
During and after menopause, lower levels of estrogen circulating in a woman's body may cause the lining of the vagina to become dry and fragile. It may feel itchy and sore; as a result, penetrative sex may be painful. If the lining of the vagina is very dry, intercourse can cause chafing and bleeding. So it's easy to see why a woman experiencing vaginal dryness might want to avoid being intimate.
Pain can also occur because of age-related changes in the size and shape of your vaginal canal.
What You Can Do
Try a water-based vaginal lubricant, such as Replens® or K-Y® Long-Lasting Vaginal Moisturizer. These types of lubricants can help relieve dryness and irritation and are available over-the-counter.
Some lubricants are designed for application just before intercourse, but the longer-lasting moisturizers are specifically for menopause-related dryness and they help keep the vagina moist for up to 72 hours.
For many women, over-the-counter moisturizers do the trick, but if they don't work well for you, consider talking to your doctor about a using prescription estrogen cream that can help make midlife sex more comfortable.
If intercourse is painful despite adequate lubrication, you may need to experiment with different sexual positions. If pain persists, see your doctor.
Age-Related Change #2: Slower Response Time
As you get older, it may take longer for your body to respond to sexual stimulation. Even if you feel highly aroused, your natural lubrication may take time to kick in, and you may not become as wet as you used to.
While this is not necessarily a sign of disinterest, some women, or their partners, may misinterpret it as such. To avoid misunderstandings, keep the lines of communication open. It may not be easy to talk about sex at first, but in the long run, it will benefit both of you.
What You Can Do
Don't rush things. Spend more time on what's traditionally been considered foreplay. Explore each other's body: kiss, caress, lick, or give each other erotic massages. And remember, if your partner is about the same age as you, he too may need more time and stimulation to become sexually aroused.
You also may want to try a lubricant.
Age-Related Change #3: Weakening Pelvic Muscles
Our muscles weaken as we age, and the pelvic muscles are no exception. Pelvic muscles play a key role in sexual function for both women and men, so it's important to keep these muscles in shape.
Pelvic-floor muscles are partly responsible for drawing blood to the genitals during sexual activity, affecting vaginal lubrication and orgasm. As pelvic muscles weaken, women may experience shorter or less powerful orgasms and may be at increased risk for urinary incontinence and uterine prolapse.
What You Can Do
Strengthen your pelvic muscles by doing Kegel exercises every day. They're easy to do, but they're also easy to get wrong. Learn the keys to a proper Kegel.
Remember that a healthy sex life is one that's healthy for you, and for your partner, if you have one. There's no such thing as a "normal" level of desire or an optimal frequency for sex. If you're not interested in being intimate at this time in your life and it's not affecting your relationship, then that's healthy for you.
Changes in Men
When it comes to sex and aging, one of the main concerns for many men is that they won't be able to perform anymore -- that they'll have trouble getting an erection, or that their erections won't be firm enough for sex. The technical term is erectile dysfunction (ED).
The truth is, the causes of erectile dysfunction are varied and complex, but ED is not an inevitable consequence of aging.
As men age, however, certain physiological changes that are likely to affect sexual functioning to a lesser degree do occur. An enlarged prostate can inhibit an erection. Levels of the hormone testosterone, believed to be linked to libido and sexual virility, gradually decrease, and blood flow to the genital area may not be as rapid as it was earlier in life.
But these changes don't have to lead to a sexual sunset. In fact, studies show that as many as 7 out of 10 healthy 70-year-olds report having sex once a week, and many men enjoy being intimate well into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s.
Age-Related Change #1: Slower Response Time
As a man gets older, it may take longer for his body to respond to sexual stimulation. Even if he feels highly aroused, it's normal for an older man to need longer, stronger stimulation to achieve an erection.
What You Can Do
Don't rush things. Spend more time on what's traditionally been considered foreplay. Explore each other's body: kiss, caress, lick, or give each other erotic massages.
Age-Related Change #2: Weak Erections and Weakening Pelvic Muscles
Many older men find that their erections are different than they were in their younger years. They may not be as hard, they may not last as long, and the experience of ejaculation may not feel as strong as it used to.
What You Can Do
For some men, having sex in the morning, when erections are more likely, helps improve their ability to maintain an erection longer. But keep in mind that penetrative sex isn't the only way to have great sex.
Age-Related Change #3: Longer Refractory Periods
It's common for older men to experience a longer refractory period -- the time until the body's ready for another erection after ejaculation. In some cases, the cooling off period may be as long as 12 to 24 hours, or more.
What You Can Do
If he's climaxed, but you and your partner aren't ready for the sexual experience to end just yet, focus on activities that don't require an erection. For example, you don't need an erection for oral sex or manual stimulation.
Other Issues That Can Affect Sexuality
Chronic medical conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, can affect a person's ability or desire to be sexually active. It's difficult for someone to feel sexy when he or she is in constant pain, feels sick or weak, or is recovering from surgery.
Also, some medications affect sexual functioning. Antidepressants, antihistamines, chemotherapy, and drug treatments for high blood pressure may contribute to erectile dysfunction in men and reduce sexual desire and increase vaginal dryness in women.
No matter what your health issue or age bracket, a little bit of patience, understanding, and creative thinking can help you make the most of midlife sex and intimacy for many years to come.
Sex and Aging: Six Steps to Maintain and Enhance Your Sexual Well-Being
- Think positively about yourself and your sexuality. Accept yourself for who you are at every stage in life, and remember that what you bring to the sexual table is something you alone can offer -- a unique expression of your desires, fantasies, fears, and experiences. And that's sexy.
- Talk with your partner about how you both may be changing. Many couples don't spend much time talking to each other about sex, and though it may be awkward at first, this type of intimate exchange, done with respect and care, may bring you much closer together and is likely to have a positive effect on your sex life.
- Remember that there are many ways to enjoy being intimate. Penetration isn't all there is to good sex. Give yourself permission to experiment, alone or with your partner, to discover what feels right for you at this time in life, whether it's a new sexual position, oral sex, cuddling, or choosing not to engage in sexual activity at all.
- Use it or lose it. Remaining sexually active (with or without a partner) helps keep blood pumping to the genital area. For women, this helps with natural lubrication, and for men, it benefits erection and ejaculation.
- Stay healthy. Eating a balanced diet, staying physically active, and maintaining a healthy weight is good for your overall -- and your sexual -- health. Studies show that in men between 65 and 69 years of age, those with type 2 diabetes and heart disease are twice as likely to experience erectile dysfunction (ED) as those without.
- Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about the medications you're using or if you have questions about your sexual health. Not all doctors are comfortable discussing sexual issues and may not be up-to-date on the latest research regarding sexual health. If that's the case, ask for a referral.
This article originally appeared on Sharecare.com, the leading online health and wellness social platform.
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