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How Do Brain Health and Aging Affect Sexual Health?

Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month is the perfect time to highlight the connections between brain health, aging, and erectile dysfunction. 

Research does not support the myth that sexual desire dissipates with age. However, sexual function is impacted by the body’s natural aging process. Brain health and aging are intricately connected to sexual health throughout the lifespan. Maintaining brain health throughout the lifespan can help people to also maintain sexual function.

This article discusses the relationship between brain health and aging and how they influence sexual function in older adults. Read ahead to learn more about maintaining healthy sexual functioning and preventing erectile dysfunction while aging.

What We Know About Alzheimer’s

June is recognized as Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month in the United States. An estimated 50 million people across the world currently live with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. Alzheimer’s is a brain disorder that results in the degeneration of brain cells and commonly leads to dementia.

The term “dementia” encompasses diseases and conditions that cause a decline in:

  • Memory
  • Problem-solving
  • Language
  • Other cognitive skills needed to perform every everyday tasks

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive degenerative disorder meaning it worsens with time. The primary risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease is age. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but current treatments available can help patients to maintain cognitive function for longer periods of time.

Personality changes related to Alzheimer’s include:

  • Anxiety
  • Delusions
  • Depression
  • Distrust of others
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep problems or disorders

Brain Health and Aging

Brain health encompasses cognitive ability, motor function, emotional function, and sensory function. As people age, their brains go through physical changes which impact overall brain health and function. These changes are associated with reduced cognitive or mental function, such as a decline in memory or reduced ability to multi-task.

Research demonstrates that regularly engaging in sex can help to maintain cognitive function in older adults. A study conducted by Coventry University and Oxford University examined the link between frequency of sex and cognitive health in adults aged 50 to 83. Researchers found participants who reported to be the most sexually active scored higher on cognitive tests than those who reported limited sexual activity.

Sexual Health Among Older Adults

Couple smiling at each other in bed.Some adults experience challenges in maintaining sexual health and intimacy later in life. The majority of challenges to maintaining sexual health stem from:

  • Physical health conditions (e.g. limited mobility)
  • Chronic health conditions (e.g. heart disease)
  • Mental health conditions (e.g. dementia)
  • Sexual dysfunction (e.g. erectile dysfunction)
  • Hormonal imbalance (e.g. low testosterone)
  • Loss of a partner

Research recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society sought to determine the prevalence of sexually active senior adults living in the United States. The study demonstrated that, not only were healthy senior adults still engaging in sex, but senior adults with physical and cognitive disorders also remained sexually active. The researchers estimated more than 1.8 million men and 1.4 million women who are home-dwelling with likely dementia are still engaging in sex with their partners.

Erectile dysfunction is the most commonly reported sexual dysfunction for men over the age of 40 in the United States. Though ED can occur at any age, a man’s risk for ED increases with his age.  An estimated 15 percent of men over the age of 70 are currently living with ED.

Research demonstrates that erectile dysfunction symptoms are a common first indicator of cardiovascular disease. One recent study also identified ED as a potential early predictor for dementia. Aging men should speak with their doctor about ED symptoms and their potential risk for other forms of heart or brain disease.

Alzheimer’s and Sexual Health

Couple smiling at each other while holding onto bicycles.Alzheimer’s disease has been shown to dramatically affect mood and personality. The negative impact of Alzheimer’s on cognitive function can influence sexual health and intimacy in patients. Those suffering from complications of Alzheimer’s may experience extremes in attitudes toward sex, which can range from hypersexuality to complete disinterest in sex and intimacy.

An Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis is often mistaken for an end to intimacy and sex for older couples. Physical and emotional intimacy can be a valuable source of comfort, support, and pleasure for both partners. Though certain symptoms or medications may decrease sexual pleasure or performance, providers recommend exploring new ways to maintain closeness or intimacy.

Couples wishing to maintain intimacy in the face of Alzheimer’s can:

  • Seek help. Couples can work with medical providers, counselors, and social workers to find appropriate treatment and support.
  • Redefine “sex.” Couples can expand their definition of “sex” to include other forms of physical intimacy, such as kissing, touching, massage, or cuddling.
  • Increase quality time together. Couples can engage in new activities or favorite pastimes together to improve emotional intimacy.

Staying Sexually Active

Aging does not have to mean the end of sexual satisfaction. Older adults concerned about maintaining sexual function now have a variety of options in the form of medical treatment, counseling, and sex therapy to assist them in maintaining a happy and healthy sex life.

Tips for maintaining a satisfying sex life while aging include:

  • Acknowledge that sex may not be “the same.” As people age, their physical ability to engage in sex may change. Couples may wish to reexamine their definition of “sex.” They may also benefit from letting go of the pressure for sexual function to remain exactly the same.
  • Speak openly with your partner. Couples are more likely to successfully navigate sexual dysfunction and improve sexual satisfaction when speaking openly and honestly about desire, pleasure, and physical limitations.
  • Visit your doctor. Medical treatments for sexual dysfunction can help to maintain sexual function and pleasure for both partners.
  • Enlist the help of a sex therapist. Many physicians will refer their patients to sex therapists for additional assistance. A sex therapist can help couples to work through specific sexual anxieties or dysfunction.
  • Take care of your health. Managing chronic health conditions is essential to maintaining and improving sexual function.

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Shelby is a public health professional with research and field experience in sexual and reproductive health. She holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) and is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES).