Many individuals wonder what will happen to their sex lives as they get older. Will they still be interested in having sex? Will sex continue to be as pleasurable as it was when they were younger? How does the body change with regards to sexual function as it gets older? While there are some changes that occur in an individual's sexual response cycle that come with aging, there are many ways to maintain and enjoy an active and healthy sex life at any age.
Common Changes caused by Aging in the Sexual Response Cycle
As people get older, there are changes in an individual’s sexual response cycle, but these changes do not necessarily impact the quality of one's sex life in a negative way.
Men and women have different changes to their sexual response cycles with age.
For men some changes from when they were younger may include: taking longer to get an erection or have trouble getting an erection at all, having less muscle tension in their penis, lengthening of the time it takes to orgasm, less contractions during orgasm, and/or a longer refractory period.
For women, some changes from when they were younger may include: less vasocongestion, inadequate lubrication, less expansion of the vagina, taking longer for arousal, less muscle contractions during orgasm, and/or less frequent orgasms.
These changes are natural and vary in the impact that they affect an individual’s sex life. It is possible to enjoy a pleasurable sex life with these bodily changes, and there are many things that one can do to keep an active and healthy sexual experience.
Changes in a Male’s Sexual Response Cycle during Aging
The Excitement Phase
- With age, erections (the engorgement of the penis with blood) may take longer than when at a younger age; a younger male may be able to experience erection in a matter of seconds, while some older men may need a prolonged period of more intense, effective physical stimulation to become erect. This is due to a decrease in testosterone; beginning in the mid-twenties, males tend to have a gradual decline in testosterone levels.
- Some males may find that they have trouble getting erections; if this is an ongoing problem, they may have erectile dysfunction. There are psychological and physiologicalcauses for erectile dysfunction, including neurological, vascular, post-surgical, drug-related, hormonal, lifestyle choices, anxiety, stress, and depression.1 There are many ways to treat the problem. If it is physiological treatment options include: Sildenafil (Viagra), External Vacuum Constriction Devices, surgically inserting internal devices, Intracavernosal Injections, Intraurethral Therapy, Yohimbine, and Testosterone therapy. These methods can be read about more in depth here. If erectile dysfunction is occurring because of psychological reasons, there are ways to help treat and prevent it, like keeping a healthy lifestyle by exercising, having a healthy diet, avoiding recreational drugs/smoking, communicating with your partner, creating a relaxed environment during sexual activity, and having safe sex on a regular basis.
The Plateau Phase
- As males age, may have “softer” erections due to less muscle tension (myotonia) than when they were younger.
- Complete erection may not occur until the end of the plateau phase instead of at the beginning, after continuous stimulation.
- The testes may not elevate towards the body as much as at a younger age.
- Older men may be able to stay in the plateau phase longer before climax than when they were younger, which may or may not enhance his and his partner's sexual experience.
The Orgasm/Climax Phase
- There may be fewer contractions during orgasm than at a younger age, which could lead to a less “intense” feeling orgasm.
- The pressure of ejaculation may decrease with age.
- Volume of semen in ejaculate may be decreased.2
The Resolution Phase
- Older men’s penises may return to their relaxed state faster than younger men.
- The testes may lower away from the body faster than when at a younger age.
- The refractory period (the time it takes to recover after an orgasm before being able to have another) lasts longer than it did when the man was young. In a male’s late teens/early 20s, a male’s refractory period can be as short as 3-5 minutes. As he ages, this refractory period lengthens; in his late 20s, the period maybe 15-30 minutes, while in his 40s this could take around three or four hours. By the time he is in his 50s, the refractory period may take ten to twelve hours. When he reaches his 60s, it could take as long as twenty-four hours.3
Changes in a Female's Sexual Response Cycle during Aging
The Excitement Phase
- As women age, there is less vasocongestion (genital swelling due to arousal) than when they were younger. Inadequate lubrication (less production of vaginal fluids) may occur, and vaginal lubrication may take longer. Women who lack adequate lubrication may invest in synthetic "lube," such as KY Jelly to reduce friction during sexual activity. There are many different types of lubricants available, and it is suggested to try multiple to see which is best for each individual. The width and length of the vagina does not expand as much as for young women, which can make it more difficult to accommodate an erect penis, finger, or other object.
The Plateau Phase
- For older women, it may take longer to become and stay aroused than when they were younger; older women may need more stimulation to become aroused than younger women.
The Orgasm Phase
- There may be fewer muscle contractions during orgasm, which may result in a less “intense” orgasm. This is because the pubococcygeal muscle (PC muscle) weakens with age. Kegel exercises can be done to strengthen this muscle. Kegel exercises consist of repeatedly tightening and releasing the muscle. The best way to begin these exercises is to locate the muscle by stopping urination midstream; if you can do this, you know which muscle to workout. Then, tighten and hold these muscles for 5 seconds, then release for 5 seconds, and repeat. You can work up to longer periods of time with practice. These exercises can build stronger pelvic floor muscles, which in turn can increase sexual response, pleasure, and the likelihood of reaching orgasm.4
- Orgasms may become less frequent as one ages; more stimulation might be necessary to achieve orgasm.
The Resolution Phase
- After orgasm, the body may take less time to return to an unaroused state than for younger women. This may occur more rapidly with age because older women experience less vasocongestion than younger women.
Ways to Keep a Healthy Sexual Response Cycle
One of the best ways to maintain a healthy sexual response cycle is to keep up an active sex life, which will exercise key body parts involved in sexual arousal and orgasm. In this case, the phrase "use it or lose it" holds truth; sexual activity does not have to decrease with age.
Overall health directly affects the sexual response cycle, so in order to have a healthy sex life, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle via exercise and healthy diet. Being active will help increase energy throughout life, which can directly effect how often sexual encounters occur (a lack of energy be a reason many couples avoid having sex).
Many of these changes in the sexual response cycle do not have to be viewed as problems. For example, older women can have improved vasocongestion and lubrication with prolonged foreplay, which could increase the amount of pleasure she experiences. In addition, although pelvic floor muscles (which help bring blood to the genitals and create the contractions of orgasm) weaken as men and women age, they can easily be strengthened through Kegel Exercises. Since arousal may take longer in both men and women, foreplay may become more important and necessary. With age, it might be wise to focus on intimacy, instead of orgasm, as the ultimate goal of a sexual encounter. Not only does this change in focus take the pressure off of “performing,” but it may actually enhance the sexual experience for both partners involved.
The Myth of Sexual Peaks
A popular myth exists that women and men experience their sexual peaks (the time in which an individual's sexual desires and abilities are at their highest point) at different times in their lives, and then experience a rapid decline in sexual drive, pleasure, and frequency. According to this myth, men supposedly reach their sexual peak in their early twenties, while women do not reach theirs until their thirties.
It is possible that sexual desire, performance, and frequency may only decline slightly with age. A sharp decrease in sexuality does not have to occur, and both sexes can remain actively sexual during adulthood and beyond, depending on personal preferences.
However, it is important to understand that people may lose their sexual interest at any age depending on their sexual experiences. For instance, if someone has experienced negative or unloving sexual experiences, he or she could potentially have a decreased interest in sexual pleasure, performance, or frequency. It is important to understand your partner’s preferences involving sex in order to keep a healthy relationship, especially if they have had negative experiences.
People can have rewarding and exciting sex lives for decades no matter how old they are; sexual activity and pleasure does not necessarily need to decrease with age.
2) Bartlik, Barbara and Zucker Goldstein, "Men’s Sexual Health After Midlife." Practical Geriatrics. http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/data/Journals/PSS/3563/291.pdf
3) Hosein, Everold, “Waiting for Orgasm.” Trinidad Express Newspapers. http://www.trinidadexpress.com/featured-news/Waiting_for_orgasm_-124577124.html
Last Updated 13 October, 2014.