Both common sense and scientific evidence point to the desirability (pun intended) of a long and healthy sex life for its own sake. However, the reality is that sexual problems do increase with age – especially in concert with menopause – with the net result being a decrease in sexual desire and activity. Beyond the obvious reason of seeking out therapeutics to continue to enjoy sex, there is a surprising additional benefit of an active sex life in other areas of women’s health – namely a positive impact on cognitive ability for women over the age of 50.
In general, there have been very few studies that have investigated the relationship between sexual activity and cognitive ability. Even the limited amount of research has focused on men only. However, a recent longitudinal study in England of 6,833 men and women over age 50 examined associations between amount of sexual activity and cognitive ability, especially in the areas of executive function and memory.
Women with higher sexual activity performed better on the memory tests than women who had less active sex lives. This link held up even after accounting for differences in age, education, wealth, physical activity, depression, cohabiting, self-rated overall health, loneliness, and quality of life.
As it was an initial exploration of these two aspects of older women’s lives, it is difficult to draw conclusions about what exactly accounts for the association between being sexually active and certain thinking abilities. However, the research trend and the message seem clear: Women should continue to enjoy sex after 50, and the good news is there are a number of ways to make this happen.
Women should not assume that the sexual chapter of their lives is closed after menopause. Far from it. Treatments for lowered libido and physical changes such as vaginal dryness have improved vastly for this generation of over 50 women. Hormone replacement, bioidentical hormones, vaginal estrogen, and antidepressants are among the best remedies available for both the physical and psychological symptoms of menopause.
Estrogen replacement in the form of cream or vaginal tablet inserts are a godsend to many women for thickening vaginal walls that tend to thin with age and cause pain during intercourse. In some cases, hormone therapy (systemic medication) may be needed to address more severe vaginal atrophy. FDA-approved Paxil, as well as other antidepressants prescribed off-label, can ease hot flashes and night sweats, or possibly lift the depression that lowers libido.
Even a generation ago many of these remedies were not available. Recently I had a conversation with a healthcare professional in my primary care practice. We wondered if our mothers simply stopped or avoided having sexual intercourse because it was too painful. Did women think it was just part of life to have a decreased libido as they got older, and either accepted it or became depressed over the loss of desire and enjoyment? There is probably a range of answers to these questions. In any case, one has to imagine that there was a need or demand for alternate solutions, as there have been so many attempts now at developing and improving treatments to address the sexual problems women experience as they age. The fact that continuing to have a healthy sex life after 50 may improve cognitive functioning adds another very good reason for women to explore these treatment options.
So, professionally speaking – let’s get it on ladies!