How do women feel about sex as they age?

There is a common misconception that women lose interest in it once they hit midlife, says Holly Thomas, a physician and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Her newest research, which looked at the sexual attitudes and activities of 2,100 women ages 28 to 84, challenges that idea. She found that nearly 60 percent of women in their 60s and older who were married or cohabiting were sexually active and as satisfied with their sex lives as women in their 30s and 40s (though they tended to have sex less frequently).

“For some reason there seems to be a persistent assumption in society and among health-care providers that women lose all aspects of their sexuality as they get older,” says Thomas. Her research also shows that having a committed partner was a significant factor in whether women in midlife and older were sexually active, but about 13 percent of sexually active women reported not having a steady romantic partner.

“Some women in this age group lose a prior partner to death or divorce and begin dating. However, there are, of course, women who have preferred more casual sexual relationships their entire lives,” Thomas says.

Holly Thomas thinks the emotional aspects of sex may become more important as women grow older. (Courtesy of Holly Thomas)

Thomas recently talked to The Post about women, aging and sex.

When you talk about sexual satisfaction, do you think what qualifies as satisfaction is different between younger women and those, say, who are 60 and above?

Some work we are doing right now, which has not yet been published, does suggest there are differences in what constitutes a satisfying sex life for younger versus older women. Many of the women we’ve talked to indicate that when they were younger, the physical aspects of sex were more important to their satisfaction, like a good orgasm, but now that they’re older, emotional aspects, such as feeling closeness and intimacy with their partner, are more important.

Are women over 60 more sexually active now than they used to be?

The results of my study were actually similar to previous studies going back decades.

What are health benefits, if any, to being sexually active in advanced age?

There have actually been multiple studies that have shown that women who maintain a satisfying sexual life into old age report higher levels of happiness and well-being. So it definitely looks like staying sexually active and maintaining a satisfying sex life as you get older can make you feel better.

What are the most common misconceptions women have about sex in advanced age?

Some women are surprised to find that the types of sexual activity that they enjoyed when they were younger change over time. Many women I talk to say, “What used to work for me doesn’t work for me anymore.” Some of the women we talked to for the study have definitely noted changes in their sex lives over time . . . they have lower libido or trouble reaching orgasm. However, for a large number of women, things tend to stay very stable over time in terms of their sexuality. And there are many women we’ve talked to who have actually reported that their sex life has gotten better as they’ve gotten older. Some of these women mention that they feel more confident and more assertive in terms of their sexuality than when they were younger. They know their own bodies better, so they both know their own sexual needs better and are able to communicate those needs to their partners.

Are there any medical concerns that women need to be aware?

After women go through menopause, they have less estrogen circulating in their bodies, [which] can lead to discomfort or pain during sex. But there are actually a lot of safe and effective treatments. . . . I hope that women feel empowered to speak up to their health-care providers if they experience anything like that so they can talk about the treatment options that are available.

In recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the rate of sexually transmitted infections in seniors is rising. How worried should older women be about STIs?

Older women who are becoming sexually active with a new partner should take the same precautions as younger women. Using a condom during sexual activity is one of the best ways that women can protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections. Also, vaginal dryness and changes in the vagina can make the vaginal tissue more susceptible to damage during sexual activity, which can sometimes make is easier for STIs to be transmitted. Using a lubricant that is compatible with a condom can help with that vaginal dryness and also prevent condom breakage.

Some older women don’t feel comfortable talking to their health-care providers about their sex lives.

In society, there’s an assumption that older women aren’t sexually active. Older women might feel hesitant to bring up any sexual concerns with their doctor because they don’t want to be perceived negatively. Doctors can also do their part by routinely asking about sexual activity and if [their patients] have any concerns or questions.

Have you done research on men and sex?

Up until now, my work has focused on sexual function in women, but I am open to doing work with men in the future. I think men’s sexual health has received more attention from both health-care providers and the media, so I want to continue working to bring attention to women’s sexual health.

Mullin is a freelance science writer.