Forget the Stereotypes: Sex and the Golden Years – It’s Healthier Than You Think

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There are plenty of inevitable drawbacks that come with getting old, but celibacy isn’t one of them. Even though older adults still have love lives, a new study finds a staggering number of people erroneously believe sex is solely an activity for young and middle-aged adults.

A recent poll by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reveals that over 25 percent of young adults mistakenly think sex increases older adults’ risk of heart attack, and disinterest in sex is a normal and unavoidable part of growing old. While it’s vital to note that the majority of respondents displayed permissive views regarding sex in later life, study authors believe these findings are also shedding light on the misconceptions and ageist views prevalent in society, which may infringe on older adults’ rights to sexual expression.

Researchers surveyed over 270 young adults (ages 18-35) to reach these findings. More specifically, the poll assessed respondents’ level of knowledge about sexuality in older adulthood, their attitudes toward sex in general, and their perceptions of it as a leisure activity offering plenty of benefits and purposes beyond solely procreation. Liza Berdychevsky, a professor of recreation, sport, and tourism at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Iulia Fratila, a professor of global and community health at George Mason University, led this project.

Notably, young adults only had a moderate level of knowledge about sexuality in later life. However, respondents’ permissive attitudes contrasted with the findings of earlier studies that concluded younger individuals (especially women) tend to hold negative, narrow-minded beliefs regarding old people and sex.

“Our findings suggest that young adults tend to exhibit increasing levels of tolerance, acceptance and open-mindedness about later-life sexuality,” says Prof. Fratila, who earned her doctorate from the U. of I. in 2022, in a media release.

“How much young adults know about later-life sexuality does not necessarily explain their ageist perceptions,” Prof. Berdychevsky adds. “And sociodemographic characteristics such as gender did not matter either, to our surprise.”

“However, their general views of sexuality and sex as a recreational activity do explain quite a lot about young adults’ views on sexuality in later life. That is particularly important because it provides insight for developing sexual health education programs that focus on sexuality as a lifelong pursuit.”

Older couple in bed
1 in 4 young adults mistakenly believe sexuality fades with advanced age (© pikselstock –

The study notes an association between liberal attitudes toward sexuality in general, and among older adults in particular, and a strong view of sex as a leisure activity among young adults in the poll. Prominent organizations, including the World Health Organization and the World Association for Sexual Health, echo this perspective, highlighting the leisure qualities of sex (sexual pleasure, autonomy, self-determination, and sexual rights for all).

A prior study conducted by Prof. Berdychevsky concluded leisurely characteristics (playfulness, experimentation, connection, intrinsic motivation, instant gratification) rank among the top motivators for sexual activity among adults. Similarly, another prior study co-authored by Prof. Berdychevsky found older adults who reported seeing sex as a recreational activity found sex helpful in coping with crises and challenging life transitions (retirement, empty nest syndrome).

Counter to the ageist view on sex held by so much of society, multiple studies have shown that the majority of adults continue to lead healthy, fulfilling sex lives well into their 80s and 90s. Sex late in life also offers health benefits such as improved cardiovascular function and relaxation, as well as decreased pain sensitivity and depressive symptoms.

Study authors add that older adults’ sexual rights are particularly vulnerable to marginalization and neglect, as society continues to hold the misconception that they are not and should not be sexually active. On a related note, some respondents said they would hesitate to admit an older family member to a nursing home if the facility permitted and supported sexual activity among its residents.

“There’s some research suggesting that young adults tend to have these ageist attitudes toward sexuality because of their own fears of aging and mortality,” Prof. Berdychevsky concludes. “It is oxymoronic when you think about it, because if we are lucky, we will have the opportunity to grow old. And who would want their own sexuality to be discriminated against or neglected in later life? Mitigating these ageist stereotypes to leverage sexuality’s benefits throughout the lifespan will be beneficial for everybody.”

The study is published in the journal Leisure Sciences. 

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

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