Do sexually active older people have better cognition than their more celibate counterparts?
The answer seems to be a resounding yes, at least when it comes to some aspects of cognition. Here’s the story…
Numerous studies from around the world have investigated the effects of sexual activity on cognitive function. In the United Kingdom, a research group has conducted two first-of-their-kind studies in older adults.
Their 2016 study compared sexual activity among 6,833 men and women aged 50 to 89. They found higher levels of sexual activity – including petting or fondling – in the previous 12 months were linked to enhanced performance in two tests of cognition.
Their follow-up study involved a much smaller sample of 83 cognitively healthy men and women aged 50 to 83 years old, but they implemented a much wider range of cognitive tests. Results showed that frequency of sexual activity was not linked to attention, memory or language, but all the same there were brain benefits.
Better Verbal Fluency and Visuospatial Skills
Researchers found that those engaging in weekly sexual activity, compared to monthly or no activity over the previous 12 months, performed better on tests of verbal fluency and visuospatial ability.
Verbal fluency tests the ease with which words can be produced. A typical test gives people 60 seconds to name as many animals as they can or words beginning with a particular letter. Higher marks reflect better cognitive abilities.
Visuospatial skills are needed to recognize and organize information that we see so we can, for instance, navigate space, drive a vehicle safely, read a map or find objects in a picture.
The link between sexual activity and cognition in older people has been replicated in research carried out in Australia, in men aged 70 or more, and in the Netherlands, in men and women aged over 60.
In all studies, researchers asked whether participants had engaged in any form of sexual activity, but no research group had looked at the quality of the relationship between sexual partners and how this affects cognition. As a result, aging researchers from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, decided to fill this gap. Their findings were published in February.
Sexual Satisfaction Holds Back Dementia
The University of Kentucky research group investigated intimacy between older married adults and changes in mental ability over a ten-year period.
They drew on novel survey data from 155 cognitively intact men and women, exploring four areas: romance with one’s partner, sexual satisfaction, beliefs about sexuality, and emotional intimacy.
Over the decade a third of the group developed cognitive impairment.
Participants who reported greater sexual satisfaction when the study began were less likely to suffer mild cognitive impairment or dementia in the future. None of the other three areas had a significant effect on the outcome.
The researchers concluded that sexual satisfaction “may represent a novel social determinant of cognitive health.”
These are still very early days in this area of research. However, initial theories explain the boost in cognition by the way the brain is impacted via alterations in neurotransmitters such as dopamine, or hormones such as testosterone and oxytocin that are released during sexual activity.
It will take a good deal more research to uncover the answers, but at least it’s good to know that an activity that can give so much pleasure is good for the brain, even if we don’t know why.