The first comprehensive national survey of senior sexual attitudes, behaviors and problems in the United States has found that most people ages 57 to 85 think of sexuality as an important part of life and that the frequency of sexual activity, for those who are active, declines only slightly from the 50s to the early 70s.
Data from the University of Chicago's National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP), presented in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that many men and women remain sexually active-participating in vaginal intercourse, oral sex and masturbation-well into their 70s and 80s.
While the results of the survey look encouraging, it is still natural for men to notice a gradual decrease in sex drive (libido) as they age. The degree of this decline varies, and most men maintain certain amount of sexual interest well into their 70s and 80s.
And here’s a new word for you: obsolagnium. You may not find it in an ordinary dictionary. But if you are over 50, you may well be familiar with the concept, because it means “waning sexual desire resulting from age.”
In fact, it is rarely age per se that accounts for declines in libido among those in the second half-century of life. Rather, it can be any of a dozen or more factors more common in older people that account for the changes. Many of these factors are subject to modification that can restore, if not the sexual energy of youth, at least the desire to seek and the ability to enjoy sex.
Nor is it just hormones. Addressing only the distaff half of the population, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, in its newest work, “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause,” points out: “Our sexual desire and satisfaction may be influenced by our life circumstances, including the quality of our sexual relationships, our emotional and physical health, and our values and thoughts about sexuality, as well as by the aging process and the shifting hormone levels that occur during the menopause transition.”
The same, of course, is true of men. Difficult life circumstances can do much to dampen anyone’s libido. Stress at work or home, looming bankruptcy, impending divorce, serious illness, depression, a history of sexual abuse and a host of medications are among the many things that can put a big crimp in your desire for sex at any age.
Of course, illness, both mental and physical, can seriously disrupt a healthy libido at any age. Diseases of the adrenal, pituitary or thyroid glands can diminish sexual desire, as can depression and anxiety. Likewise, several common cancers — especially cancers of the breast, testes or prostate or the drugs used to treat them — may suppress the desire for sex.
Many commonly administered medications can interfere with sexual desire, performance or both. Among the most frequent offenders are antidepressants and antianxiety drugs, blood pressure medications and opioid pain relievers. High doses of alcohol likewise blunt desire as well as performance. Even drugs taken to curb heartburn can curb the desire for sex. In some instances, changing the dose, switching to a different drug or taking a brief drug holiday (say, for the weekend) can boost libido.
A Change of Scene
While a drug like Viagra may help a man temporarily overcome disease- or medication-induced erectile dysfunction, it does nothing to increase desire, which is essential for these potency-enhancing drugs to work.
Knowing how to please each other sustains sexual interest for many long-established couples. But for others, familiarity can breed boredom; they lose interest in doing the same old thing the same old way time after time.
Novelty is a well-established sexual stimulant. An unattached man or woman in midlife or beyond who had all but forgotten about sex meets someone new and attractive, and suddenly the flames of sex are reignited. This can happen, too, to very old people. Stories abound in assisted living and nursing home facilities of elderly widows and widowers whose long-dormant sexuality is reawakened by attraction to a new, albeit equally old, partner.
An article in Psychology Today (2008) profiles a therapist/author who suggests that married men with low libido can overcome this difficult situation if they just do it. According to this article, “their low sex drive often has little to do with hormones or biology and a lot to do with the women in their lives. Men today, often enough, are angry at their wives.” Readers are told that, “In the presence of a mismatch of desire, all intimacy drops out on all levels in addition to the sexual. Couples stop having meaningful conversations.”
Men, especially, are designed by evolution to be attracted to sexual novelty and to gradually lose sexual attraction to the same partner in the absence of such novelty. The so-called Coolidge Effect is well demonstrated in social mammals of all sorts, and is old news to anyone knowledgeable about reproductive biology.
Back in 1979, anthropologist Donald Symons pointed out that: “Human males seem to be so constituted that they resist learning not to desire variety despite impediments such as Christianity and the doctrine of sin; Judaism and the doctrine of mensch; social science and the doctrines of repressed homosexuality and psychosexual immaturity; evolutionary theories of monogamous pair-bonding; cultural and legal traditions that support and glorify monogamy.” Does anyone really need more examples of a man with a whole lot to lose risking it all for sex with a woman other than his wife?
Of course, changing partners is not a realistic option for those in a long-standing monogamous relationship in which sexual intimacy is just a fond memory. But there are ways for such couples to introduce novelty — ranging from a change of venue or techniques to an exchange of fantasies or even the introduction of sex toys — that may rekindle sexual feelings.
Even young couples can find their interest in sex diminished by a fear of interruption or being overheard by children or an elderly parent. It can take some effort — and perhaps a lock on the bedroom door and background music — to reduce the risk of distractions that blunt the flame of desire.
Over the years an amazing array of substances has been proposed as aphrodisiacs. The only ones that really do anything are what we might call quasi aphrodisiacs, notably booze and drugs, which do not increase desire so much as they reduce inhibitions. Some drugs also enhance sex once the show is under way. Amyl nitrate, AKA "poppers," is said to intensify and prolong orgasm when inhaled at the point of climax. Amphetamines can produce prolonged erection and multiple orgasms in men, although women usually experience negative effects.
A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel reviewed 15 alleged aphrodisiacs in 1982, including gotu kola, ginseng, licorice, sarsaparilla, cantharides (Spanish fly), nux vomica, Pega Palo, strychnine, and yohimbine. The panel declared there was "no substantive evidence whatever to support the claims of aphrodisiac action attributed to these ingredients." In some cases, in fact, they can make things worse — strychnine, for instance. Spanish fly, derived from a southern European beetle that is powdered and then eaten, produces an irritation of the urethra that may mimic sexual arousal, but it can also cause genital damage, impotence, and in extreme cases, death from shock.
Yohimbine, which comes from the bark of a tropical tree, caused a flurry a few years ago when it was shown to increase sex activity in rats, but tests with humans have been disappointing. A compound related to yohimbine, papaverine, has been shown to produce "impressive erections" if injected directly into the penis. While potentially useful to those suffering from impotence, this doesn't sound like something the average guy would want to fool with.
Other reputed aphrodisiacs include megadoses of vitamin E (studies indicate it has no effect), as well as such things as sea turtle penises, raw bull testicles, and powdered rhinoceros horn, about which I need say no more. And then there's bee pollen. One quack has called it "a wonderful natural food which tends to increase the body's production of sex hormones." Some believe it also enhances athletic performance, relieves asthma, retards aging, etc. The evidence to date suggests otherwise. While it's legal to sell bee pollen as a food, the FDA frowns on any claim of therapeutic benefit.
If you're concerned about loss of sex drive — especially if the loss happened abruptly — consult your doctor. He or she will likely do a physical exam and lab tests to help determine what's causing the loss of sex drive. Once any underlying factors are identified, your doctor can suggest appropriate treatment options. For example:
- Sex drive changes, especially in conjunction with erectile dysfunction (ED), could be a red flag for serious medical conditions, such as a heart problem. So, the medical treatment should be focusing on the loss of libido, but more likely on the heart related issues.
- If loss of sex drive is related to depression, psychotherapy alone or in combination with antidepressant medication may help.
- If you're diagnosed with an unusually low testosterone level, treatment options may include testosterone replacement therapy.
- If a certain medication is contributing to loss of sex drive, your doctor may suggest an alternate drug.
- Erectile dysfunction is also common in older men and experts say it can cause a lowered libido in both partners.
Remember to be open and honest with your doctor. The more you can tell him or her about your loss of sex drive, the more effective treatment is likely to be.
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