Women's Sexual Activity in Later Years Influenced by Partner Issues

June 24, 2009
News Office: Lauren Hammit (415) 502-6397

As a woman gets older, physical problems are less likely to influence whether she is sexually active than her partner's health or interest in sex, according to a new study by researchers at UCSF and Kaiser Permanente.

The study also showed significant differences in the frequency of sexual activity, as well as sexual desire and satisfaction, among racial groups of middle-aged and elderly women. Study results appear in the June 24, 2009 online version of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

In the study of nearly 2,000 women, age 45 to 80 years old, 43 percent reported at least moderate sexual desire, and 60 percent had been sexually active in the previous three months. Half of all sexually active participants described their overall sexual satisfaction as moderate to high. More than one-quarter of women age 65 or older remained moderately or highly interested in sex, and more than one-third of women in this age group had been sexually active in the past three months.

Among sexually inactive women in the entire group, the most common reason was lack of interest in sex (39 percent), followed by lack of a partner (36 percent), physical problem of partner (23 percent) and lack of interest by partner (11 percent). Only nine percent were inactive from personal physical problems.

Sexual activity was defined as any activity that was arousing, including masturbation.

"Our findings indicate that a substantial portion of women are interested and engaged in sexual activity as they age," said lead author Dr. Alison Huang, assistant professor in internal medicine at UCSF. "Clinicians should consider a woman's overall health when addressing concerns about sexual inactivity. However, treatment directed solely at improving women's sexual functioning, such as medications, may not substantially affect their activity if partner issues also are not addressed."

The U.S. population is becoming increasingly diverse and older, as the first wave of baby boomers is turning 65 years old. Researchers evaluated multiple dimensions of sexual functioning among a racially and ethnically diverse group of middle-aged and older women who self-identified demographic characteristics, medical history, medication use and health habits. More than half the women in the overall study were of non-white ethnicity — 20 percent were African-American, 18 percent were Latina and 19 percent were Asian — and over two-thirds of participants were married or living as married.

African-American women were more likely than white women to report at least moderate desire but less likely to report weekly sexual activity, and sexually active Latinas were more likely than white women to report at least moderate sexual satisfaction.

"To date, research has focused rather narrowly on the physical factors that contribute to women's sexual response, and very little analysis has explored sexual function among racially and ethnically diverse women. Further work is needed to understand the differences in self-reported sexual functioning by race, and how they change as women age. Ultimately, this information should help guide clinicians in discussing sexual problems with women of diverse backgrounds," said Huang.

To ensure confidentiality, participants completed questions in private and submitted them to study personnel in sealed envelopes.

Co-authors of the study are Dr. Leslee L. Subak, Dr. David H. Thom, Miriam Kuppermann and Dr. Jeanette S. Brown, all from UCSF; Stephen K. Van Den Eden and Arona I. Ragins from Kaiser Permanente; and Hui Shen from UCSF and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The study was ancillary to the Reproductive Risks of Incontinence Study at Kaiser, which was funded by grants from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the Office of Research on Women's Health's Specialized Center of Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Huang also is supported by a grant from the National Center of Research Resources at the NIH.

The Kaiser Permanente Division of Research conducts, publishes and disseminates health services research to improve the health and medical care of Kaiser Permanente members and the society at large.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions and excellence in patient care. For further information, visit www.ucsf.edu.