Sex appears to protect brain health of older adults

Can your sex life, as a SuperAger, influence your brain health?

A new study, reported here, suggests the answer is a convincing “Yes!”

The study showed that sexual activity in older people (who do not live in nursing homes) is “linked to better cognitive function down the road.”

Explaining the study, the article notes “the dataset is nationally representative and includes information on how often Americans have voluntary, partnered sex (not necessarily intercourse), the level of pleasure they derive from that sex (orgasm or no), and how emotionally satisfying they find their sexual relationships.”

Cognitive function was based on a scoring system that included attention span, memory, language, conceptual thinking, calculations, and orientation.

Social scientists Shannon Shena from Hope College and Hui Liu from Purdue University put the two components together, and analyzed any correlations. Main findings:

— For those aged 75 to 90, frequency of sex was the key. “This group was found to have significantly better cognitive function five years on, if they were currently having sex at least once a week.”

— For those aged 62 to 74, the quality of sex, including physical and emotional elements, was more important

From the article: “‘As seen in our sample, promoting sexual quality among younger-old couples may be a way to combat the interruptions which people anticipate to come with aging,’ Shena and Liu suggest, ‘and these feelings of sexual quality may manifest in their later cognitive health.'”

The relationship did not appear to go in the other direction, however. While sexual activity was a predictor of later cognitive health, earlier cognitive health was not a predictor of later sexual activity.

Why might sex contribute to later cognitive health? Shena and Liu offer three possible reasons:

— Sex often involves physical exercise, leading to improved cardiovascular health and increased blood flow to the brain, as well as reduction of inflammation

— Sex reduces stress, “and stress is thought to prevent the neuronal growth in some parts of the brain associated with memory”

— Sex releases dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter associated with improved memory

Shena and Liu commented, “Our findings help to contextualize a multifaceted understanding of healthy aging and speak to clinical practices and policy decisions regarding cognitive health, and in particular how it may be related to sexual life, an often overlooked area for older adults.”

(Photo credit KatarzynaBialasiewicz at iStock by Getty)

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