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Sex in older age: Can the brain benefit?

We’ve all heard the phrase “use it or lose it,” and there are many other examples in the media of how we can keep our brains sharp as we age. Research has shown that what is good for your heart is good for your brain, in the biological sense – but what about in a romantic sense? Surprisingly, there has been very little research on the links between sexual relationships and cognition in later life. A variety of research findings have shown associations between cognitive functioning and mental, social, emotional, and physical activities in older adults. Some might say that sex life actually impacts upon all of these aspects of health and wellbeing. So maybe it’s time for us to shift focus?

There has been a long history of scientific and medical findings of lifestyle factors that may protect cognitive functions – especially memory – in older age. Memory loss is particularly worrisome for all of us, and this has become a popular topic of debate with the increased public and political focus on dementia.

Some researchers have turned their attention to how cognitive impairment – such as dementia – impacts sexual relationships within couples. This research is enlightening and is integral to our understanding the dynamics of how cognition (and its shortcomings) not only influences intimacy, but also ethical issues of consent, between older couples.

So we can see that impairments in cognitive function can affect sexual relationships in later life. But what if we look at this from another perspective? What if a healthy sex life can actually positively influence brain function in healthy older adults, in a similar way to a healthy diet or exercise? Because research in this area is so sparse, our study has gone back to basics to answer the simple question of whether there is indeed a link between sex and cognition in healthy older adults. After accounting for effects of potential contributory factors (age, education, wealth, levels of physical activity, cohabiting status, general health, depression, loneliness and quality of life), we found a significant association between sexual activity and higher scores on tests of cognitive function in people over the age of 50 years.

Although this finding is extremely exciting, the waters are a little muddied by anomalies in our results. For example, for the women in our sample, there was no association between sexual activity and scores on a number sequencing task (e.g. fill in the blank – “9, 7, _, 3”). Whilst we were unable to pinpoint the cause from our initial analysis, we believe that it could be due to a wide range of biological, social, and psychological reasons. The explanation that we are most excited to explore is that of hormonal influences on brain regions that are responsible for “executive functions,” such as number sequencing. Scientific research has shown that, even before we are born, pre-natal sex hormones impact upon brain development – and hence influence cognitive function throughout the lifespan. We aim to explore this in our next project.

In addition to the questions raised by gender differences in our findings, we still need to address the issue of causality. Just like the proverbial chicken and egg, we do not yet know whether engaging in sexual activity actually leads directly to better cognitive function. Or indeed conversely, it could be that people who have a higher level of cognitive functioning are more likely to engage in sexual relationships in later life. We plan to address this question of causality in a follow-up longitudinal study.

A final question that our study has uncovered is whether we are dealing with a biological or a social phenomenon. We think that the roots of our initial findings could lie within regular surges in arousal and release of sex-related hormones (i.e. biological account), or higher levels of intimacy and companionship (social account). Of course, our answer could lie in a combination of both the social and biological impact of sexual activity on brain function, and the age-old nature vs. nurture debate comes into play here. It would be very interesting to hear your opinions on what you think is going on here: nature or nurture, biological or social, love or sex.

With all the previous research on healthy lifestyles and cognitive function, wouldn’t it be nice to add “healthy sex life” to our checklist for mental and physical wellbeing in older age?

Featured image credit: Old couple by coombesy. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

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