There’s much scientific evidence about the physical and emotional benefits of having a healthy sex life. Still, there seems to be a general belief in society that sex and aging don’t go together, and that once you reach middle age, sex probably takes place more in your head than in your bed.
However, recent research between the Universities of Coventry and Oxford suggests that partaking in sex may have a greater impact on your brain later on in life than we ever imagined. Concentrating on the effects of sexual activity on the cognitive abilities of people over 50, researchers asked the question: Can regular sex later on in life boost your brain power?
Regular Sex, Healthier Brain?
”People don’t like to think that older people have sex — but we need to challenge this conception at a societal level and look at what impact sexual activity can have on those aged 50 and over, beyond the known effects on sexual health and general wellbeing,” says Dr. Hayley Wright, lead researcher from Coventry University’s Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement. The combined study, led by Dr. Wright, assessed the impact of sexual activity on brain health. Seventy three people aged between 50 and 83 took part.
A questionnaire established whether the 45 women and 28 men had been sexually active over the past 12 months, and how often — monthly, weekly or not at all. They were also questioned about their lifestyle and their general health, before undertaking a series of tests to assess attention span, verbal fluency, visuospatial ability, language and memory. Verbal fluency skills came out on top as the skill most likely to be enhanced in those who had sexual activity on a weekly basis. This was tested by asking, for example: how many animals can you name in 60 seconds? And, how many words beginning with ‘F’ can you say within a set time period?
Dr. Wright explains why she decided to test this largely unstudied association between sexual activity and the brain in older adults: ”My research interests are in the health and lifestyle factors [i.e., things that we can change or modify] that can affect cognitive function as we age. This allows us to understand how we can protect our brain from the more rapid decay and decline that leads to different types of dementia. There is a lot of research on the mental, social and physical activities that can protect cognitive function in later life, but very little mention of sexual activities and relationships. New data on sexual activities became available in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing in 2015, so I used this to test our novel theory that sexual activity may be linked to cognition, in the same way as leisure activities.”
Feel-Good Hormones, Sex and the Brain
There’s already much research into the beneficial effects of sex on one’s health in general, and in his book Superyoung: The Proven Way to Stay Young Forever, published after a 10-year study into sex and wellbeing, Dr. David Weeks says: “Sex is a crucial factor in preserving youth. It makes us happy and it produces chemicals telling us so.”
The study took account of the responses of 3,500 people from Britain, the U.S. and Europe aged between 18 and 102 years old. Dr. Weeks says we are more likely stay in trim if we are in a sexual relationship, in part because we believe it will make us more attractive, and also because more physical exercise tones us up and increases blood circulation. Crucially, the ‘feel good’ hormones of Oxytocin (associated with bonding) and Dopamine (associated with motivation, reward and pleasure) are released by the brain during moments of intimacy and sexual activity.
Dr. Hayley Wright and her team are keen to look further into the effects of Oxytocin and Dopamine, researching how these biological elements influence the relationship between sexual activity and brain function: ”They can both be released during sexual and intimate activities, but also during many other types of activity. For example, Oxytocin can be released when we greet a good friend, or even pet our dog or cat. Dopamine is linked with many different types of pleasure-seeking, learning and approach behaviors, such as eating or working hard to achieve a goal.”
Though there are many factors influencing the way our sex life impacts our mental health, Dr. Wright believes the 2017 report has established a definite link between healthy sexual activity and cognitive function. This year’s research follows on from her initial work in 2016:
”In our first study, we used a very large sample of participants and so we were able to control for the effects of physical activity amongst many other factors in our analysis. This means that the results [i.e., the link between sex and cognition] could not be attributed to the effect of physical activity, suggesting that there may be something special about sexual activity.”