Recently researchers used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, which asked more than 10,000 participants age 50 to 89 a variety of questions about their lifestyles, in addition to testing their cognition. One of the questions was about sexual activity, and researchers focused on this to seek an association between sex and cognition later in life.
Interestingly, only 6,833 of the 10,601 participants answered the survey’s question about having engaged in any form of sexual activity in the past 12 months. In their analysis, the researchers compared those individuals who reported having any sexual activity (4,497) with those who reported having none (2,336). In comparing the characteristics of these two groups, researchers found that those reporting sexual activity were more likely to have a higher level of education, be younger, wealthier, more physically active, not as depressed, less lonely, and have a higher quality of life.
They then compared how all participants scored on the study’s two measures of cognitive function, which included a number sequencing test, which relates to executive functioning such as reasoning and cognitive flexibility, and word recall, a test of memory. Before adjusting for potentially confounding factors, the researchers found that sexual activity was significantly associated with higher scores on both tests for both men and women.
Due to the comprehensiveness of the survey questionnaire, the researchers were able to statistically isolate sexual activity from other potential mediators of a relationship between sexual activity and cognition. For example, they wanted to confirm that the higher cognition scores weren’t due to the sexually active group being younger than the inactive group. Other potential influences that were controlled for included education, wealth, physical activity, depression, cohabitation, overall health, loneliness, and quality of life.
When the researchers controlled for these factors, they found different results for men and women. Statistically significant differences showed better cognition for sexually active men; this was true for both cognitive tests. When all contributing factors were accounted for, sexual activity explained 21 percent of the cognitive differences observed between the two groups for the executive functioning test, and 24 percent for the memory test. For women, statistically significant differences remained only for the recall test of memory, where sexual activity explained 21 percent of the cognitive differences observed. The reasons for these gender differences were not clear, but the researchers pointed out that they could be due to differences in brain development and hormones between the sexes.
Sexual activity is often a very private matter for many older adults, as seen in the number who refused to answer an anonymous survey question on the matter. Moreover, ageism tends to discourage thinking of older adults as sexual beings. However, this study suggests the cognitive benefits of sex are another reason that sex should not be seen as a taboo, unnecessary, or off-limits subject for counselors or health care professionals working with older adults. Instead, the ongoing cognitive benefits of any type sexual activity should be communicated to older adults. Sexual activity can be added to the list of cognitively beneficial activities, along with long-recommended activities such as physical activity and socializing.