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Do social ties affect our health? Exploring the biology of relationships

Part 2: Older adult marriage & sexuality

July 2017 NIH Social Ties Part 2 photoContrary to what is often assumed, sexuality remains important to overall quality of life well into old age. If you have concerns about how sexual activity could affect your health, talk with your medical provider.The quality of a marriage—whether supportive or hostile—may be especially important to the health of older couples. Dr. Hui Liu at Michigan State University studied data on the health and sexuality of more than 2,200 older people, ages 57 to 85. Good marriage quality, she found, is linked to reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, while bad marriage quality is tied to increased risk, particularly in women. “The association between marriage quality and heart health becomes increasingly strong at older ages,” Liu says.

Liu and colleagues are also looking at the links between late-life sexuality and health, including whether sex among the very old is beneficial or risky to heart health. “Some people assume that sex isn’t important in older ages, so those ages are often overlooked in research studies related to sex,” Liu says. “But our studies suggest that for many older people, sex quality and sex life are important to overall quality of life.”

In one recent analysis, Liu and co-workers found that older women who reported having a satisfying sex life were at reduced risk for high blood pressure five years later. But the researchers also found that some older men, ages 57 to 85, were at increased risk for certain heart-related problems after five years if they reported having frequent (at least once a week) or extremely enjoyable sex. The reasons for these increased risks aren’t clear and are still under study. Experts suggest that older men and women talk with their doctors about concerns related to sexual issues or potential health risks. Learn more about sexuality in later life.

Article adapted from the National Institutes of Health February 2017 News in Health, available online.