Considering it’s a universal human activity, it’s surprising how little research has been conducted on the relationship between sex and the brain.
To fill the void, several researchers from the UK decided to look into the association, if indeed there is one. They discovered that sexually active older adults performed better on cognitive tests, but the reasons for this were unknown.
This prompted them to carry out a follow-up study to see if they could learn more.
One a Week, Once a Month, or Never
In the original study, nearly 7,000 older adults were asked about any type of sexual activity — from petting to intercourse — in the previous 12 months. Then the researchers carried out tests of memory and executive function.
They found a significant association between sexual activity and cognitive abilities, but the tests didn’t distinguish between specific or general improvements in brain power.
So in their latest study, the research team from the universities of Oxford and Coventry enrolled 28 men and 45 women aged between 50 and 83.
These folks were given a multiple choice option in a questionnaire as to whether they engaged in sexual activity weekly, monthly or never. 37 answered weekly, 26 monthly and ten said never. Their feedback was adjusted for factors that affect cognition such as age, education, cardiovascular health and social well-being.
For example, it’s known that cognitive ability rises with the number of years of education, independent of how frequently a person has sex. Thus it would be inappropriate to directly compare people of widely varying education without adjusting the data. And there are many such factors that correlate with cognitive ability.
In the second study, the participants were also given a standardized test measuring memory, attention, verbal fluency, language and visuospatial ability.
Two Specific Abilities Improve with Sex
The researchers found those who engaged in sex each week scored two percentage points higher on average on some cognitive tasks compared to the monthly group and four points higher than the no-sex group.
However, the frequency of sexual activity was not related to memory, attention or language.
It was related to verbal fluency. This was the type of ability that seemed to be most affected by frequent sexual relations. The test involved naming as many animals as possible in 60 seconds and as many words as the participant could beginning with the letter they were given.
Frequent sex also had a marked but lesser influence on visuospatial ability. Here the participants had to copy a complex picture and draw a clock face from memory.
The researchers concluded that “older men and women who engage in regular SA [sexual activity] have better cognitive functioning than those who do not engage in SA, or do so infrequently…the findings have important implications for the maintenance of intimate relationships in later life.”
Why Does This Happen?
As to why the link between sex and brain function exists, the authors were not much wiser than after their original study, but they believe there may be a cause and effect relationship that involves the secretion of the brain hormones dopamine and oxytocin.
Lead author Dr. Hayley Wright commented, “We can only speculate whether this [link] is driven by social or physical elements – but an area we would like to research further is the biological mechanisms that may influence this.
“Every time we do another piece of research we are getting a little bit closer to understanding why this association exists at all, what the underlying mechanisms are, and whether there is a ’cause and effect’ relationship between sexual activity and cognitive function in older people.”
My take is that this is one, very small study and far from conclusive on the relationship, if there is one. It seems possible to me that the causation runs in the opposite direction – cognitively bright people are more interested in everything – and there’s plenty of evidence that this contributes to a long life and healthy cognition.
In addition, future research should look at sexual relations in the broader context of ALL social relations, not just sexual relations, as connections with other people are a well-known factor in preserving cognitive ability.