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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Nobody likes to think about their parents having sex. Maybe that's one reason for the common belief that when people get old, they lose interest in it. Well now, the most comprehensive scientific survey yet shows what older people themselves have long known that for most of them, sex remains an important part of their lives.
NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Several years ago, Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau was treating a dying older woman who had been brought to the hospital by her children.
Dr. STACY TESSLER LINDAU (Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Chicago): And I said to her - with her family at the bedside -should anything happen to you tonight that would require somebody to make a decision for you, who should we call. And her son stepped to the front and said, oh, call me and I will help make decisions. And the family left, and a couple of hours later, I got a call from the nurse who said, Dr. Lindau, the patient would like to see you again. And I went to her room and she said to me, should anything happen to me, this is the person to call.
SHAPIRO: That person to call was not her son, instead, it was…
Dr. LINDAU: Her longtime companion. Her lover. A relationship she had started since her husband had passed away many years before. And because of the shame and embarrassment she felt - because she perceives that it was unseemly for a woman of her age to start a new relationship as a widow - her family knew nothing of this person.
SHAPIRO: Lindau started thinking more about just how little doctors like her really know about the importance of sex and intimacy as people get older, and why that matters for health. It led her to do the study she's now published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Lindau and her team interviewed and examined more than 3,000 older men and women. The youngest were in their late 50s, the oldest 85.
What they found is that most people, at least into their early 70s, are sexually active.
Dr. LINDAU: Among adults 57 to 85 years old, even if they didn't have a partner, most people said sexuality is an important part of life.
SHAPIRO: Seventy-seven percent of older men said sex was important. Sixty-five percent of women agreed. Most of those who reported being sexually active said they were having sex at least two or three times a month. Lindau says that's about the same as what national surveys have found for younger people, 18 to 59, and that how often older people have sex doesn't change much from their 50s until their mid 70s.
Dr. LINDAU: For women, especially around age 75 and older, many lose their partner.
SHAPIRO: One of the best predictors of whether women or men stay sexually active is whether they have a spouse or partner. For one thing, hardly anybody in the survey said they'd have more than one partner in the previous year -just two percent of men and one percent of women. But women are more likely to lose a partner.
Dr. LINDAU: Women on average live longer than men. And there's a sizeable cohort of older women who may not be sexually active simply because they don't have the opportunity to do so.
SHAPIRO: In addition to this partner gap, people were less likely to be sexually active if they said they were in poor health. And those health problems are more common for people in their 70s and 80s.
Dr. Robert Butler's been a leading researcher in what makes for a healthy and successful aging. He's 80 and he welcomes the new research.
Dr. ROBERT BUTLER (Founder, Department of Geriatrics, Mount Sinai School of Medicine): It helps lay to rest the prejudice that somehow, older people are not interested in lovemaking and not capable of it and get no satisfaction and all of the usual stereotypes.
SHAPIRO: Butler says many doctors hold those stereotypes. The result is that they don't talk to older patients about the treatable health problems that can interfere with sex and intimacy.
Dr. BUTLER: Well, if there is no discussion, then it's not going to be a diagnosis, it's not going to be a look to see if there might be problem with diabetes or there might be some neurological problem that's interfering. Medications frequently have adverse effects on sexuality. Anti-hypertensive medications do, for example, and anti-depressants, too.
SHAPIRO: A doctor can often switch medications or change the dosage to help improve someone's sex life. Dr. Butler hopes the new study will result in doctors and their older patients talking more frankly about sex.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.