Art Linkletter's Perspective on Sexual Myths & Realities
AND NOW A FEW WORDS ABOUT SEX
By Mark Victor Hansen & Art Linkletter
And now, a few words about sex. Sex. Sex, sex, sex. After all, it’s one of our favorite subjects; we can talk about it for hours. If you listed our culture’s favorite subjects, sex would appear at the top of the list. There’s nothing we love to talk about and gossip about more, and for good reason, because sex is life. Unfortunately, too many seniors are just talking about it and nothing more, and that’s a shame. Because it doesn’t have to be that way.
Of all the societal stereotypes surrounding age, the idea that seniors and sex don’t mix is perhaps the strongest. If you’re buying into that myth, wake up; there’s a lot more sex going on among the elderly than you realized. Good thing, too, since sexual activity is one of the best ways around to reduce stress, improve attitude, and keep relationships strong as the decades accumulate.
A Few More Sexual Myths
Myth: Impotence afflicts every man in old age. In reality, though many men take longer to achieve an erection when they’re older, men who continue to be sexually active into their 50s and beyond tend to retain their potency.
Myth: Sex can be hazardous to your health if you’re over fifty-five. Not so, say experts. Sure, if you have a heart problem, it’s best to take it easy, but the idea that a healthy sixty-five-year-old man is going to suddenly drop dead during the act is something out of a bad Hollywood movie.
Myth: The sex drive gradually drops for men and women as the years advance. Horsefeathers. Extensive research has shown that those who continue to become more intimate and active as they age retain as much of their interest in sex as they had when they were younger even if they may not engage in intercourse as often.
Myth: Old people can’t be sexy. Nothing could be more ludicrous. Apart from the fact that in today’s society, people in their 60s and 70s are considered middle-aged, the idea that experienced, confident people who have taken care of themselves can’t be sexy is absurd.
We mythologize sex in our culture, and that doesn’t change when we talk about sex among seniors. But where the myths tend to be posi¬tive when the subject is younger people, as with so many other stereo¬types, the talk turns negative when we look at folks over retirement age. That’s why it’s so important to speak up and contest such myths and misconceptions.
Use It or Lose It
As years of workouts keep your body able to bend and stretch into your 70s, years of sexual activity in your middle age will help keep you active into your later years. Men who stop having regular sex in their 50s and 60s increase their chances of becoming impotent later on. Women also risk losing their sex drive.
What’s just as important, says Sallie Foley, a social worker, sex thera¬pist, and author of Sex and Love for Grownups: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Life of Passion, is that sex remains just as enjoyable for people even into their 90s. In an interview for this book, she says, “Women’s confidence in their sexuality increases as they get older because they’re no longer tethered to stereotypes. It’s as if women are saying ‘Look, I’ve dealt with the body image stereotypes. I’m not living by anybody’s stereotypes. I set my own pace now.’ People who are past their 50s or 60s, if they’re sexually active, tend to say that their pleasure in sex has increased as they’ve gotten older.”
If you follow health news, it’s not difficult to see a regular flow of new research being released about the sex lives of people over fifty. For example, a 2004 AARP study, “Sexuality at Midlife and Beyond,” looked at more than 1,700 men and women over forty-five and discovered some surprising new realities about sex among the senior set:
22 percent of men report using some kind of drug of treatment to treat sexual performance problems
60 percent of respondents agree that sexual activity is a critical part of a good relationship
63 percent of men and women described themselves as extremely satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their sex lives
The general picture suggests that older people are more willing to discuss sex as a health and a quality of life issue. At the same time, more physicians and health-care providers are looking at sexual activity as a marker of health and a predictor of serious conditions such as heart dis¬ease. “We know that healthy and physically active respondents are gener¬ally more satisfied with their sex lives than those with a medical condition,” wrote Linda Fisher, research director at AARP, in an article on SeniorJournal.com.“Thirty-one percent of men said better health for them¬selves would increase their satisfaction with their sex life, and 23 percent said better health for their partner would increase their satisfaction.
Women appear to be the greatest beneficiaries of the senior sexual revolution. As they age, women generally suffer from fewer problems with sexual performance than men and retain the same sex drive and desires. The result is a boost in sexual confidence among Baby Boomer women. A 2005 survey revealed that 82 percent of them consider themselves very or somewhat confident sexually. What’s interesting is that in the younger groups of women surveyed, the confidence level was lower. This suggests that as women age, they are less concerned about what other people think and more aware of their own sexual knowledge and ability. The study backs this up—62 percent of female Boomers said they had a greater sense of what satisfied their sexual needs, and two-thirds said that having good sex was a priority in their lives.
The Physical Side of Sex
The growing body of research and surveys suggests that great senior sex is not wishful thinking but fact. The simplest reason is health. Older Americans are healthier today: exercising, eating better, quitting smoking, staying purposeful and busy. And with greater health and vitality comes greater sexual desire. If you feel alive and vibrant, you’re more likely to enjoy making love with your mate; if you feel exhausted all the time, you’re going to have no interest in the bedroom.
What’s becoming clear is this: sex is good for you. Since living a full, brilliant Second Prime means doing all you can to ensure that body and mind remain full of energy, sex is one of the keys not just to a happy old age but to a healthy one as well. Look at some of the physiological benefits of an active sex life cited in a 1997 study from Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, correlating overall health with sexual frequency:
Reduced risk of heart disease. A 2001 follow-up study to the Queens University work found that men who had sex three or more times per week reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke by half.
Weight loss. A typical sexual episode burns about 200 calories, about the same as doing fifteen minutes on an exercise bike. The pulse rate can rise as high as 150, which is prime fat burning level for most folks. And muscular contractions actually work the buttocks, pelvis, thighs, neck, and abdomen. Sex also boosts the production of testosterone in men and women, leading to stronger bones and better muscle development.
Pain relief. Just before orgasm, levels of the hormone oxytocin rise to 500 percent of their normal levels, releasing endorphins that can relieve pain from arthritis, migraines, and more.
Improved sense of smell. It appears that the act increases production of the hormone prolactin, which in turn causes the brain to develop new neurons in the brain’s smell center.
Improved immune system. According to a study conducted by Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, people who have sex about two times per week produce 30 percent more immunoglobulin A, a main component of the immune system. Caveat: the test was performed largely on people in their early 20s.
A healthier prostate. Some researchers have seen a connection between men who have infrequent sex and greater risk of prostate cancer. This implies that more frequent sex could help remove impurities through the semen that might otherwise cause prostate problems later on.
Healthier teeth. Board Certified Sexologist and licensed psychotherapist Marcy Dater Weiss, PhD, LCSW, CAP, SAP, says in an interview for this book that kissing, which is usually a part of sex, encourages the production of saliva, which lowers mouth acidity and washes the mouth clean of food particles. (Hey, we didn’t say this information would be pretty.)
Better skin. Dr. Weiss also suggests that the increased perspiration that comes with rigorous sexual activity can cleanse the pores.
But in the end, these are all just bonuses. Do we really need a reason to enjoy sex? We just know that we do. Sex is an integral part of being human, vital, and alive. The great thing about frequent sex is, practice makes perfect. “The more you do it, the better you get,” says Dr. Weiss. “If you are a golfer, you practice your swing. A tennis player practices his serve to get better. Why not practice making love?”
The Choreography of Lovemaking
We’ve established that sex is good for you, whatever age you are. Now we’re going to wreck another misconception that seniors don’t enjoy sex as much as younger people do. All the evidence suggests just the opposite: people over fifty-five enjoy sex as much or more than their younger counterparts.
How is that possible? Let’s begin with the obvious: no kids and fewer distractions. Unlike when you’re younger and have to deal with the demands of children, the stresses of your job, and all the other myriad comings and goings of life, when you’re older you have more control of your time. You can make love when and where you like. That freedom is conducive to passion and spontaneity.
But also, when you’re older, you’re better at sex. You know what you want, and what’s more, you each know just what pleases the other. “Younger people don’t really know about the choreography of lovemaking,” says Foley in her interview. “It develops over time, with communication, assisted by the natural process of aging for men, which tends to delay orgasm a little bit. So for men as they get older—if you think about the sexual response cycle as being desire, arousal, orgasm— their sexual response cycle slows a little bit, and women’s is slower in general. The sexual response cycles for men and women match up better, and they tend to focus more on the eroticism of their sexuality, not just the ‘home run’ of an orgasm. Couples in their 60s actually talk about feeling like they’re more in sync now in terms of their sexual activity.”
A couple’s unbreakable emotional bond is another reason sex is often better in the Second Prime of life. You are more intimate. You know about the small touches, mood creators, and the anticipation of sex that leads to greater arousal and an experience that can last for hours. At the same time, you know each other’s signals, so you know when he or she might not be in the mood for a long, slow evening of seduction. Sex should be fun, and the more you know about what makes each other swoon, the more fun it is.
When Being Bad Isn’t Any Good
One of the most common reasons seniors do not have frequent sex is simply that they suffer from poor health. They may not have taken care of their bodies over the years, they may be overweight and have little energy, or they may suffer from a broad range of medical problems from arthritis to high blood pressure that make them afraid to have sex for fear it will be a danger to their health.
If you’re in pain, lethargic, under stress, or simply don’t feel healthy and well, sex will not be very much on your mind. Problems such as an enlarged prostate or treatment for prostate cancer can produce impotence in men though new treatments such as radioactive “seed” implantation have been developed in recent years that specifically reduce the risk of sexual side effects—a sign that the medical community is finally recognizing the importance of sex in the senior years.
Another reason some older Americans suffer from poor sex lives is that they are on medication that inhibits their sexual drive. “A lot of times, people will come in and say to me, ‘Things don’t work like they used to,’” says Dr. Weiss. “One of the first things I do is have them medically checked to make sure everything is in working order. Once we see if there are any medications they’re on that are affecting their sexual performance, we can go on from there.” Medications for high blood pressure and antidepressants are known to reduce libido as well as erectile function. In fact, about 25 percent of cases of erectile dysfunction (ED) are due to medication. Other types of medication that can inhibit sex include:
Antipsychotics like chlorpromazine and thioridazine
Cholesterol lowering medications, including statins
Medications for anxiety and sleeplessness
If you’re experiencing sexual problems and you’re taking prescription medication, ask your physician if what you’re taking can inhibit sexual drive or arousal. Then you can take the proper action.
Sometimes the causes of a poor sex life are more subtle. Couples may suffer from a poor body image, comparing their older, less-toned and less-muscular bodies with the young, sleek bodies they see all over the media these days. It’s enough to make them feel inadequate, and if they’re ashamed of how their bodies look, they are not going to want to shed their clothes. Unfortunately, the bodies we see in the media are unrealistic—models and actors who have personal trainers, makeup artists, and all the time in the world to get in shape; after all, they’re paid to look good.
If you’re buying into the myth that everyone but you looks perfect, it’s time to ask yourself why. Do you really think you’re the only one who’s gotten older? Do you really think the changes in your body have gone unnoticed by your loved one? In the end, if you’re exercising, eating right, and taking care of your fitness and grooming, you’re going to look as good as you can look, and that breeds confidence. And as any mature person will tell you, confidence is sexy. If you haven’t taken care of yourself and are self-conscious about your body because of it, you know what to do. Get to the gym, start eating better, and develop a lifestyle around losing weight, moving, and being fit. You’ll find your confidence—and sexual energy—rushing back.
It’s the Relationship, Stupid
A few pages back, we mentioned that women said relationship was a critical part of their enjoyable sex life. The same is true for men, especially as the ardor of youth turns into the more deliberate, seductive sex of older age. The relationship matters.
“What we see come up in the literature is that women say, ‘I don’t care if my husband takes Viagra or not, I’m still not interested in sex with him because he’s been a jerk for years,’” says Foley. “Viagra isn’t going to settle that problem.” She says that one of the biggest problems the couples she sees have—couples who should otherwise not have sexual difficulties—is that they don’t communicate about sex. They don’t discuss their relationship, love, or sex. In an article for SeniorJournal.com, she says, “They use euphemisms rather than communicating honestly with each other. Some older adults also don’t know where to obtain relationship information specific to their situation. When they do find this information—a magazine article about sex, for example—they do not know how to broach the subject with their partners.
It’s virtually impossible to become aroused by someone, regardless of how good they look, when you feel alienated, resentful, or shut out. On the other hand, Second Prime couples who enjoy great sex, says Weiss, “have a very young, positive, optimistic attitude.”
In her book, Sex & Love for Grownups: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Life of Passion, Foley offers some additional advice about keeping the fires of passion burning in the years when they’re waning for many couples:
Live a life of connections. Even if a perfect love eludes you, making sure that you have a wallet full of photos of family and friends will give meaning to your life.
Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you continue to see yourself as an adventurer, or if you’ve never taken a risk to try new things, now’s the time.
Expect your relationships to be like your car. No matter how much time and care you devote to your vehicle, it still occasionally breaks down and always needs maintenance. Relationships are like that too.
Abandon either/or thinking. Life is complex, and thinking in rigid yes-or-no categories will often fail you. In order to respond to relationships and their complexity, think of diversity, plurality, and many possible solutions to a problem.
Take time to celebrate. Ask people what they love about life and they’ll tell you it’s the very ordinariness of life that is spectacular about living. After a crisis, what really counts is the restoration of normalcy.
Love. Relinquish the need for perfection and focus on what’s real.
Getting Your Groove Back
If the relationship is great, but the sex isn’t, what can you do? Start with your health and fitness. Everything begins there. Dr. Weiss points out that everything you should be doing for a vital, lively Second Prime in general will also enhance your sex life. “Seniors with healthy sex lives exercise regularly, do things for their minds, get lots of sleep, and eat right,” she says. “Men make sure their prostate is healthy, they take vitamins. They have a really healthy lifestyle and a positive, healthy attitude.”
Foley also emphasizes that for men who have lost some sexual function, PDE5 inhibitors (we won’t state any brand names, but you know one of the drugs as a little blue pill) are godsends. “They’re wonderful medications,” she says. “For years as a sex therapist, people would come in with erectile dysfunction, and I would basically have to say, ‘We don’t really have anything for you to do, except just live with this.’ So people are saying, ‘Why should I live with erectile dysfunction when these drugs can help me?’ They’ve really helped lots of couples.” There are, as you probably know, some health concerns for men in taking such drugs, especially men who are taking nitrates for heart problems. But don’t let fear condemn you to living with ED. Talk to a physician and find out if these drugs can help you.
Another step Boomers can take now to ensure better sex later is to practice Kegels (named after its creator), an exercise that works the pubococcygens or PC muscle. “That helps to strengthen orgasmic response for women,” Foley says. She explains how the exercise works for both men and women: “The Kegel works the muscle that stops and starts the flow of urine. You know the muscle. There are two kinds of Kegels. One kind is what we call the ‘blinker Kegel.’ Meaning, you could sit at a long, left-turn light with your car blinker on and tense and relax your muscle in time with the blinker on the car. You might do fifty of those a day.
“Then we say to do about twenty to thirty of the other kind of Kegel,” Foley continues, “which would be tense-hold-2-3-4-5, relax-2-3-4-5. Do those on top of your blinker Kegels, and you get a really good muscle workout. For women, this can prevent urinary incontinence and improve the flow of blood to the vagina to keep the vagina healthy and more supple. For men, they have striated muscles that hold the penis in place and help the penis stay steady when it is engorged with blood. Those striated muscles are actually exercised by doing Kegels.”
Excerpted from How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life by Mark Victor Hansen & Art Linkletter. Copyright © 2006 by Hansen & Hansen, LLC and Art Linkletter. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Nelson Books. $24.99. Available in local bookstores or call 800-251-4000 or click here.