Older Men Ease Stress Over Sexual Issues by
Discussing with Partner, Friend
The way senior men and women deal with sexual health and
stress in their later years varies greatly
By: Angela Yeager, Oregon State
May 10, 2010, Corvallis, Ore. – A new study
suggests that it may not help senior citizens with sexual problems
to talk to a doctor, but the senior men who talk to their partner report greater
happiness – and those who talked with friends felt less depressed.
The research, to be published in the Journal of
Gerontology: Social Sciences, shows that the way men and women deal
with sexual health and stress in their later years varies greatly and
that there is not one solution that can help ease unhappiness caused by
The research was conducted by Ryo Hirayama, a Ph.D.
student in Oregon State University’s Department of Human Development and
Family Sciences, and professor Alexis Walker, who is the Jo Anne L.
Petersen Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies at OSU. The study was
conducted with data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging
The Oregon State researchers looked at 861 people
ages 57 to 85 who were married or had an intimate partner, and who
reported having at least one sexual problem.
The sexual problems reported by older adults
included lack of interest in sex, inability to climax, physical pain
during sex, maintaining an erection, or lubrication issues.
were asked to indicate on a scale from 1 to 3 how bothered they were by
each problem they listed. They also were asked about their well-being,
which the researchers measured by using typical scales for happiness and
for depressive symptoms.
The study yielded several surprising findings.
First, fewer than half of older adults with sexual problems discussed
these problems with their doctors, although men were more likely to do
so than women. In addition, whether older adults discussed these issues
with their physicians did not make a difference in their well-being.
“This was our most unexpected outcome,” Hirayama
said. “Older adults are advised to talk to their doctors about sexual
health issues, but not all people do so and talking with a physician is
not as helpful as you might expect.”
However, confiding in a partner or with friends was
found to be effective for many men in reducing stress and unhappiness
related to sexual problems. Unfortunately for women, this same benefit
was not reported.
“In fact, women with higher levels of sexual stress
who confided in their close friends reported lower happiness,” Hirayama
said. “We aren’t quite sure what to make of this finding.”
Women did not see any reduction in stress or
well-being (unhappiness and depression) when they talked to their
“What this tells is that women’s sexual issues are
complex, and that complexity needs to be recognized,” Walker said. “A
woman with a great deal of sexual concerns could feel threatened by
talking to her spouse about it, or perhaps simply confiding in a friend
is not enough.”
Since the largest effect size was seen with men who
confided in both spouses and friends, the researchers said the result
brings into critical focus the importance for men in middle and later
life of confiding in family members and friends.
“The finding is striking because most people
presume men do not have confidants,” Hirayama said. Hirayama is doing
his doctoral studies on male identity issues and men’s social ties in
“Men are not believed to be functioning socially in
our society, yet research increasingly shows that social networks can be
a critical part of a man’s life, especially as he ages,” he said.
Walker, who has done research in the gerontology
field for decades, said the medicalization of aging makes some people
feel as if there is a “fix” for everything. She said that in some cases,
certain sexual issues might just be part of the aging process and that
the important part is that couples keep the lines of communication open.
“In the general context of sex and aging, the rule
is ‘use it or lose it,’” Walker said.
“The best prediction of sexual
activity is to continue to be sexually active throughout your adult
life, to make it a part of your life. But it is also true that older
people can have sexual problems, and sometimes there are ways to work
around these issues by emphasizing other activities you enjoy as a
Oregon State University College of Health and Human
Sciences: Emphasizing a holistic approach to optimal health and disease
prevention, researchers focus on nutrition, physical activity, the
psychology of aging improving the health of children and older adults,
public policy, access to health care, and maximizing environmentally
friendly materials and structures.