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The Importance of Sexual Health for Seniors

The Importance of Sexual Health for Seniors

With the many advances in health care, people are living longer, healthier and more active lives. While such positive trends are definitely good news, they also contribute to additional health concerns for older individuals — especially when it comes to sexual health. Here, we’ll examine current trends in senior sexual health, the importance of education, and why it’s essential for health care providers, public health professionals and families to address this critical issue.

Current Trends

In a 2013 gathering of the American Sexual Health Association to discuss sexual health among an aging population, experts there agreed that:

  • Social and sexual relationships remain important as individuals age and are associated with both quality of life and longevity.
  • Individuals with a regular partner tend to be the happiest, but many older adults face difficulties achieving this due to challenges related to maintaining relationships and concerns about sexual function and performance.

With the advent of internet dating, better health and the increased use of medications such as Viagra, difficulties are being overcome and more people are enjoying satisfying sex lives well into their golden years. Although increased age is often accompanied by physical and emotional changes that can impact sexual desire and performance, many of these can be addressed with the right type of support. While such trends are good news for seniors, they also place them at higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — which are increasing among older individuals. According to AARP, a study published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections in 2008 found that STD rates had doubled in less than a decade among people 45 and older. This is especially concerning since new antibiotic-resistant strains of certain STDs are surfacing — making sexual health among seniors more important now than ever.

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The Importance of Education

Although seniors can be at high risk for acquiring an STD, this issue is typically not discussed as often or directly as needed. Such lack of education may be due to social stigma, lack of awareness of the risk, or generational norms that make seniors reluctant to talk openly about sex.For many, the fertile years of youth were focused on concerns about getting pregnant, not the potential for acquiring or transmitting an STD, so addressing the topic is new territory for many. That’s why it’s important for healthcare providers to educate seniors about healthy behaviors, testing, and treatment options. These include:

  • Reinforcing the value of talking to a healthcare provider about sexual health concerns.
  • Knowing a partner’s sexual history prior to having sex.
  • Limiting the number of sexual partners or practicing monogamy.
  • Ensuring that both individuals get tested for STDs prior to having sex.
  • Not having sex when using substances that may impair judgment — such as alcohol.
  • Using a condom and lubricant consistently.
  • Getting treatment if exposure to an STD is suspected.

By creating a dialogue with seniors about sexual health, families and healthcare providers can help to increase awareness of the risk that STDs pose for this vulnerable population — and support the vital role of sexuality and sexual health in optimizing quality of life in older adults.

Bio: Julie Potyraj is the community manager for the MHA@GW and MPH@GW blogs, both offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Her passion for public health developed while she was a community health and education volunteer in rural Zambia. She is currently an MPH@GW student.