How to get your midlife sex drive back on track

From mak­ing you happy to im­prov­ing your health, there’s ev­ery good rea­son to re­boot your sex life in mid­dle age, writes Suzi God­son

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Health -

SEX in mid­dle age can be a trou­ble­some busi­ness. How many midlif­ers will ad­mit they’re not do­ing it as much as they could be? Long-term re­la­tion­ships may have gone off the boil or dis­solved al­to­gether. And even the most ded­i­cated of cou­ples are likely to be deal­ing with stress­ful jobs, chil­dren and el­derly par­ents.

None of which is ex­actly con­ducive to pas­sion. How­ever, this is the age where sex is ar­guably more im­por­tant than ever. Not only is it proven to im­prove re­la­tion­ships and mar­riages, there is plenty of re­search to show that con­tin­u­ing to have sex is great for your immune sys­tem, car­diac health and mus­cle strength.

Sex makes us happy and keeps us healthy. Re­search from Queens Uni­ver­sity in Belfast, which tracked the mor­tal­ity rate of 1,000 mid­dle-aged men, found that the death rate halved for those who re­ported the high­est num­ber of or­gasms. Re­search at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago shows that cou­ples aged 57 to 85 who still have sex rate their gen­eral health as bet­ter than cou­ples who don’t and that those in a close re­la­tion­ship were more likely to de­scribe their health as “very good” or “ex­cel­lent”.

How much sex do you need to have for it to be ben­e­fi­cial?

Any­thing is bet­ter than noth­ing, but once a week seems to be the ac­cepted bench­mark. In 2017 Wright and Jenks repli­cated the re­sults of their 2016 study and found weekly sex was as­so­ci­ated with higher scores on tests of at­ten­tion, mem­ory, flu­ency, lan­guage and vi­su­ospa­tial abil­ity. At the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto, Amy Muise, Ul­rich Schim­mack and Emily Im­pett con­ducted three stud­ies with more than 30,000 par­tic­i­pants and found sex and re­la­tion­ship sat­is­fac­tion peaked at a fre­quency of once a week. Less than once a week was as­so­ci­ated with lower lev­els of sat­is­fac­tion and well­be­ing, but hav­ing sex 10 times a week brought no ad­di­tional ben­e­fits. How­ever, fig­ures from Bri­tain’s third Na­tional Sur­vey of Sex­ual At­ti­tudes and Life­styles (Nat­sal-3) showed that in 1990 the me­dian fre­quency for sex was five times ev­ery four weeks. By 2013 that fig­ure had fallen to three, and for peo­ple over 50 it was just twice a month.

But what if you just don’t feel like do­ing it any more?

Not be­ing in­ter­ested in sex was the most com­mon sex­ual dif­fi­culty re­ported by men and women in the Nat­sal-3 sur­vey, and it was twice as com­mon in women as it was in men. Re­search also shows that, re­gard­less of gen­der, peo­ple who re­port a lack of in­ter­est in sex also re­port find­ing it dif­fi­cult to talk about it. Lack of in­ter­est is prob­a­bly the most com­plex sex­ual prob­lem to solve be­cause it is usu­ally caused by a mix of fac­tors.

In midlife, con­fi­dence can take a nose­dive along with body sat­is­fac­tion, amid a sense that there is not much left to look for­ward to. If there are no phys­i­cal prob­lems and the re­la­tion­ship is es­sen­tially solid, the key to res­ur­rect­ing sex­ual de­sire is of­ten to fo­cus on im­prov­ing your emo­tional con­nec­tion. Mak­ing time for each other and demon­strat­ing re­spect, ap­pre­ci­a­tion and phys­i­cal af­fec­tion is the ul­ti­mate midlife fore­play.

We’ve stopped hav­ing sex al­to­gether

Re­search from Ge­or­gia State Uni­ver­sity sug­gests that about 15% of mar­ried cou­ples are “sex­less”, which is de­fined as hav­ing sex 10 or fewer times a year. I sus­pect that fig­ure is an un­der­es­ti­mate. In 2010 I con­ducted a sex­ual fre­quency study with 3,500 par­tic­i­pants and found that 20% were not hav­ing sex at all and 23% were hav­ing sex only once a month. If a re­la­tion­ship is in trou­ble, but both part­ners are com­mit­ted to it, the best way to re­store in­ti­macy is to have cou­ples coun­selling. If a cou­ple are es­sen­tially happy with each other then, the­o­ret­i­cally, sex­less­ness is not a huge prob­lem. How­ever, it is fun­da­men­tal to health, hap­pi­ness and gen­eral life sat­is­fac­tion, so it is al­ways worth try­ing to res­ur­rect a dor­mant sex life.

Once sex has stopped it can feel em­bar­rass­ing even talk­ing about it. In my sur­vey 39% of par­tic­i­pants said they found it “some­what” or “very dif­fi­cult” to talk about sex and 10% didn’t talk about sex with their part­ner at all. How­ever, a wealth of re­search shows that be­ing able to talk about sex with a part­ner is a very re­li­able mea­sure of re­la­tional and sex­ual sat­is­fac­tion.

If you can have the con­ver­sa­tion and you are both will­ing to try, you might want to con­sider talk­ing to a sex ther­a­pist. Your ther­a­pist may sug­gest that you try sen­sate fo­cus, a mind­ful sex tech­nique that teaches you how to be present to sen­sa­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing sex. If you are too shy to see a ther­a­pist you can Google “sen­sate fo­cus” and try to fol­low the guide­lines at home.

You will need to set aside one hour a week to do the ex­er­cises. Start by tak­ing five-minute turns touch­ing each other with your clothes on. This touch should be af­fec­tion­ate and ex­ploratory, and should avoid any gen­i­tal or sex­ual con­tact. If body im­age is a bar­rier to in­ti­macy, turn the lights off and touch each other by can­dle­light. When you feel com­fort­able touch­ing and be­ing touched, re­move your clothes and re­peat the process. If you be­gin to feel aroused, you may be ready to progress to man­ual or oral stim­u­la­tion, but don’t rush it. You must stop when the hour is up. When you find your­self des­per­ately look­ing for­ward to next week’s ses­sion, you are just about ready to go all the way.

Should I try us­ing Vi­a­gra?

In midlife the male erec­tion stops be­ing quite so re­li­able and if a man be­comes anx­ious about fail­ure, he is more likely to avoid sex than put him­self in a po­si­tion where he risks be­ing hu­mil­i­ated.

Tak­ing Vi­a­gra can help to make your erec­tion firmer and that can be very re­as­sur­ing for a man who gets anx­ious about go­ing soft at an in­op­por­tune time. Mid­dle-aged men can get wor­ried about softer erec­tions, but they for­get that, as women age, their vagi­nal walls get thin­ner, so an erec­tion that is less than rock solid can be a bless­ing.

Vi­a­gra is not a recre­ational drug, but it is no longer viewed as a med­i­ca­tion that should only be used to treat se­ri­ous erec­tile dys­func­tion. As long as you don’t have a heart con­di­tion, you can buy it over the counter in most big phar­ma­cies.

Can hor­mones help to im­prove my sex drive?

Dur­ing the menopause, de­clin­ing oe­stro­gen thins the vagi­nal tis­sue and de­creased blood flow to the gen­i­tals can re­duce sen­si­tiv­ity and make it harder to achieve or­gasm. How­ever, a flag­ging sex drive is not in­evitable and if you con­tinue to have sex you help to keep your vagi­nal tis­sue healthy. If dry­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity are a prob­lem, oe­stro­gen treat­ments such as Estring, the estra­diol-re­leas­ing vagi­nal ring, can help.

De­clin­ing hor­mones at menopause have been shown to ex­ac­er­bate age-re­lated mem­ory de­cline. How­ever, hor­mone-re­place­ment ther­apy (HRT) has had a lot of bad press, so women are wary. The best thing to do is talk to your GP. There has been a great deal of re­search into HRT and the med­i­cal con­sen­sus is that for women who do not have a high risk of de­vel­op­ing breast or ovar­ian cancer, a short blast of ap­pro­pri­ately pre­scribed low-dose HRT can be trans­for­ma­tive. It im­proves sleep, mem­ory and li­bido, and gen­er­ally makes you feel bet­ter. The In­ter­na­tional Menopause So­ci­ety re­gards HRT as a first-line treat­ment for the pre­ven­tion of os­teo­poro­sis in women un­der 60 and the En­docrine So­ci­ety cites stud­ies that sug­gest that women us­ing HRT gain less weight or body fat than non-HRT users.

Will chang­ing my diet and ex­er­cise help?

Ex­er­cise in­creases the pro­duc­tion of dopamine, as does sex, and dopamine is also in­te­gral to cog­ni­tive func­tion. Re­search by the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia found men who took an hour of aer­o­bic ex­er­cise four times a week ex­pe­ri­enced an in­crease in sex­ual fre­quency and sex­ual sat­is­fac­tion. In­ter­est­ingly, this bet­ter and more fre­quent sex turned out to be caused by pos­i­tive changes in body im­age and self­con­fi­dence, rather than im­prove­ments in stamina or strength.

There is not enough re­search on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween diet and sex. I know the gen­eral con­sen­sus is that peo­ple who eat a healthy, bal­anced diet should not re­ally need sup­ple­ments, but I would ar­gue that midlife is an ex­cep­tion. It may be placebo, but adding vi­ta­min B12, mag­ne­sium and an ageap­pro­pri­ate mul­ti­vi­ta­min to a largely Mediter­ranean diet cer­tainly won’t do you any harm and they might keep ev­ery­thing in work­ing or­der for a bit longer.

it is al­ways worth try­ing to res­ur­rect a dor­mant sex life

Pic­ture: Getty

FIND­ING EACH OTHER: If you’ve stopped hav­ing sex en­tirely you could try a mind­ful tech­nique called sen­sate fo­cus to re­con­nect.

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