Providers might not often talk about sexual health with their 65-and-older patients, but they probably should, according to a recent online poll of more than 1000 adults between 65 and 80 years.
More than three-quarters of older U.S. adults think sex is important for romantic relationships at any age, and two in five are sexually active. But only 17% — about one in six — seniors reported speaking with their healthcare providers about their sexual health in recent years, according to the May 2018 National Poll on Healthy Aging, sponsored by AARP and the University of Michigan
Armed with a growing arsenal of medications, noninvasive devices and surgeries aimed at improving sexual function and addressing cosmetic concerns, plastic surgeons are among the providers helping today’s patients address sexual health issues. For example, more than 26% of plastic surgeons perform nonsurgical and surgical vaginal procedures, according to the latest statistics by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
What Plastic Surgeons and Other Providers Need to Know
While many older Americans are satisfied with their sex lives, there’s room for improvement.
Researchers found 37% of respondents said they were extremely or very satisfied with their sex lives; another 36% indicated they were somewhat satisfied, according to Erica Solway, Ph.D., MSW, MPH, co-associate director of the National Poll on Healthy Aging at University of Michigan.
“It’s interesting. When you look at people who are sexually active, 49% say they’re extremely or very satisfied with their sex life. But among people who aren’t sexually active, 29% say that they are extremely or very satisfied with their sex life,” she says. “Some people are very satisfied without being sexually active but for a lot of people sexual activity is an important part of their life and an important part of their quality of life.”
More than half of respondents said they strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Sex is important to my overall quality of life.” But like several other poll findings, there were gender differences in the responses: 40% percent of women versus 70% of men agreed with the statement.
Among the other findings: People who self-rated their physical health as excellent, very good or good reported more interest in sex and more sexual satisfaction than those who rated their health as fair or poor.
And age does matter, according to the poll. Adults between 65 and 70 years of age were nearly twice as likely as those in their late 70s to be sexually active. One-third of those in their late 60s said they were extremely or very interested in sex, compared with 19% of those in their late 70s.
Medicine, supplements and the doctor-patient relationship
Nearly 20% of men reported taking medications or supplements in the last two years to boost their sex lives, while only 3% of women said the same. Three in four seniors taking medications or supplements to improve sexual function said the treatments were helpful. The poll didn’t ask for specifics on which medications or supplements. And the researchers didn’t ask about respondents’ having procedures to improve their sex lives, according to Dr. Solway.
It was clear, however, that the majority of older Americans don’t talk with healthcare providers about their sexual health.
“Just 17% of respondents spoke with their healthcare provider about their sexual health,” Dr. Solway says. “Interestingly, of those who had spoken with their healthcare providers, 88% said they felt comfortable having the conversations. So, I think one of the messages is that healthcare providers don’t necessarily need to worry that having these conversations might make their older patients uncomfortable.”
When researchers asked who initiated sexual health conversations, it was more often the older patient than the healthcare provider, she says.
The findings suggest that sexual health is important to many older Americans. And healthcare providers could be talking much more about sexual health, not only for older patients’ quality of life and wellbeing, but also to address sexually transmitted disease risk, potential drug interactions with medications and supplements for sexual health and more, according to Dr. Solway.
Disclosure: Dr. Solway reports no relevant disclosures.