Engaging in sexual activity and experiencing sexual pleasure might have a significant impact on cognitive function among older adults, according to a recent study published in The Journal of Sex Research. The findings suggest that addressing sexual well-being may be a crucial factor in promoting cognitive health in later life.
Sexuality is an integral part of the human experience, yet it’s often an overlooked aspect of aging. As people grow older, discussions about their sexual lives tend to wane. Previous studies have often focused on the physical and mental health benefits of sexual activity, including improved mood, cardiovascular health, and overall well-being. However, little attention has been given to how sexual frequency and quality might influence cognitive function in older adults.
“The population of older adults in the U.S. is growing, and many older adults face multiple health conditions,” said study author Shannon Shen, an assistant professor of sociology at Hope College.
“Broadly, I am interested in how social relationships are related to the risk of health problems in later life. I focus on sexual relationships because they are an intimate form of social relationships which are often overlooked in the older adult population. Despite there being a great deal of research on cognitive decline, there is little work that considers how intimate social relationships may be beneficial for cognitive functioning.”
To examine the link between sexuality and cognitive health, the researchers turned to data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP). This project surveyed a diverse group of older adults in the United States, providing a nationally representative sample for analysis.
To analyze changes over time, the researchers restricted their analysis to the 2,409 respondents who had completed both Rounds 2 and 3 of the study. To focus on partnered sexuality, they further restricted the sample to the 1,683 respondents who were 62 and older, had complete data on cognitive function, and were either married, cohabiting, or had a romantic, intimate, or sexual partner at Round 2.
Cognitive function was assessed using the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA-SA), a tool that evaluates various cognitive domains. Respondents’ scores on this assessment provided insights into their cognitive health.
The study explored three dimensions of partnered sexuality: sexual frequency (how often respondents engaged in sex), physical pleasure (the level of pleasure derived from sexual activity), and emotional satisfaction (how satisfying respondents found their sexual relationships).
Among sexually active older adults aged 75 to 90, having sex at least once a week was associated with better cognitive function five years later compared to those who reported no sexual activity during the past year. This suggests that sexual frequency may have cognitive benefits for the oldest age group studied.
For adults aged 62 to 74, the key factor influencing cognitive function was sexual quality. Those who reported very or extremely pleasurable and satisfying sexual relationships experienced better cognitive functioning five years later compared to their counterparts who did not find their sexual experiences as pleasurable or satisfying.
Among men, high physical pleasure in sexual relationships was associated with better cognitive functioning five years later. This link was not observed among women. No significant gender differences were found concerning sexual frequency and its impact on cognitive function.
“For partnered older Americans, sex matters for later cognitive function, but this depends on age and aspect of the sexual relationship,” Shen told PsyPost. “For adults 75-90 years old, having sex once a week or more is related to better cognitive function five years later compared to those who had no sex. For adults 62-74 years old, having better sexual quality – both more physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction – was related to better cognitive function five years later.”
Interestingly, when examining the reverse causal pathway (cognitive function predicting later sexuality), the researchers did not find significant effects of cognition on later sexuality.
“The models that we ran simultaneously tested how sexuality is related to later cognitive functioning and how cognitive functioning is related to later sexuality,” Shen said. “It was surprising that there were no significant results in how cognitive functioning was related to sexual activity or sexual quality five years later.”
“While it may seem that cognitive functioning may be related to sexuality, we’re really not seeing evidence for that, even when we focused on different age and gender groups. Instead, the results point to the importance of sexuality and how it contributes to later health outcomes.”
To ensure the accuracy of their findings, the researchers accounted for various factors that could influence both sexuality and cognitive health. These included gender, age, race-ethnicity, education, income, marital status, self-rated health, and depression.
But as with any scientific study, there are limitations to consider. One key limitation is that the research was based on data from only two rounds of the NSHAP survey, covering a five-year period. Longer-term studies could provide more conclusive evidence of the relationship between sexuality and cognitive health.
“There are a couple caveats to keep in mind,” Shen noted. “First, the study sample only examined community-dwelling older adults, so the results do not speak to older adults living in nursing homes. Second, there were no questions in the dataset that addressed sexual consent, which someone with more severe forms of cognitive decline may have a limited capacity to give.”
Future research could explore the neurological pathways through which sexual activity and satisfaction impact cognitive health, especially among younger-old adults. Additionally, the release of further NSHAP data will allow for longer-term investigations into the relationship between sexuality and cognitive function.
The study, “Is Sex Good for Your Brain? A National Longitudinal Study on Sexuality and Cognitive Function among Older Adults in the United States“, was authoed by Shannon Shen and Hui Liu.