The joys and perils of senior sex: Know your risk for STDs
“Women in Their 70’s Say They’re Having Way Hotter Sex Than You.” So screamed a 2014 headline in the publication Jezebel.
Could that be true? Yes, it could.
Lots of senior adults are sexually active, more than you might guess. This topic of senior sex isn’t discussed much, which SeaCare covered in a recent blog.
The fact is that over 70% of those aged 57-64, over 50% of those aged 65-74, and over 25% of those aged 75-85 are sexually active, according to a survey of 3000 people published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
It’s inspiring that seniors continue to enjoy sex well into old age. Staying healthy helps to make it possible, so we’re highlighting National STD Awareness Month. Sexually transmitted diseases, also called STIs (sexually transmitted infections) are on the increase in every age group.
Ladies and gentlemen of the older generation, you’ve come a long way in this life, and this is no time to let an impulsive intimate encounter endanger your health. At SeaCare In-Home Care Services, we’re all about education – being informed, staying safe, and living our healthiest lives.
When many seniors were coming of age, pregnancy loomed large in the lineup of unwanted outcomes of sexual activity. But the dark side of unprotected sex remained — the threat of STD transmission.
Those who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s didn’t talk about it as much. And surprise! They still don’t.
There’s a stigma for many older adults around discussing sexuality and experience. If you’ve reached older adulthood inside of a years-long monogamous relationship, chances are you’ve put concerns about STDs aside.
That’s a mistake.
Because the fact is, 1 in 5 Americans across all ages has an STD according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That should be enough for everyone to take notice, but in reality, about two-thirds of adults in this country don’t realize that STDs are a growing problem (2020 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation).
It’s a good time for a primer on safe sex.
Let’s start by talking about the wonders of senior sex.
And then let’s look at the cautionary tale of unprotected and uninformed sex.
And finally, because this article is not coming your way with the intent to discourage, let’s discuss what can be done about it. It’s time to review the common sense aspects of practicing safe sex.
Seniors and the joy of sex
There’s a lot to say here. Let’s highlight the best of it.
If you’re in your 60s, 70s, and beyond, chances are you have more leisure time these days. This stage of life offers the gift of time, and sex is at its best when there’s time to savor the experience.
For post-menopausal women, unplanned pregnancies are a thing of the past. Many have waited a long time for this freedom.
Sex is like a retreat to a private haven, away from the grind of daily life, apart from the often-discouraging news cycle, and into a refuge of warmth and togetherness.
Sex is good for you. The feel-good hormone oxytocin is released and your brain takes notice. It returns the favor by creating feelings of intimacy and deep relaxation and bonding, which increases your attraction to your mate.
During sex your body produces endorphins, which make you less sensitive to pain – their effect is similar to that of morphine. Even without orgasm, you can still enjoy the positive effects of these natural chemicals.
Sex also promotes the release of estrogen and testosterone, which admittedly are in dwindling supply among the senior population. These hormones help you feel more vital, and when you feel this way you glow.
Here’s a favorite benefit – the logical portion of your brain turns off during sex. The lateral orbitofrontal cortex, responsible for decision making and reason, becomes less active. What could be better than escaping from daily worries and pressures, if only for a short while?
Some physical challenges that come with aging no longer need to signal the end of sexual pleasure. Chronic injuries may call for less strenuous body positions. Erectile dysfunction (ED) can be remedied with oral medications. Vaginal dryness is eased with lubricants or topical estrogen. If heart disease is a concern, a gentler approach to sexual activity may be in order.
Depending on your preference, you can define sexual activity any way you want, especially if intercourse, oral sex, or anal sex don’t appeal to you. Cuddling, kissing, massage, rubbing, and solo or mutual masturbation are among many alternatives.
If it feels good, do it.
But please, do it safely!
Seniors and the perils of unprotected, uninformed sex
Sex is one of life’s greatest pleasures and in large part, you make your own rules about engaging in it. But particularly if you’re entering into a new relationship that could involve physical intimacy, you need to keep your eyes wide open.
There can be consequences of unprotected sex, which often result because one or both partners are uniformed.
Here’s the cold, hard truth about the ultimate protection. The one method that’s 100% guaranteed to protect you from contracting STDs is abstinence. And that might not sound very appealing or realistic. Although properly used condoms and dams (called barrier methods) are fairly reliable methods of preventing many STDs, nothing short of abstinence is completely effective.
But if you exercise patience and get informed, your risk of contracting or spreading STDs decreases significantly. Let’s take a few minutes to go over some important facts.
Here are 8 of the most common STDs:
- Genital herpes
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Hepatitis B
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
There’s plenty of detailed information available about each of these infections on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) site. It’s a good place to start to get the basic rundown. Your health care provider can address additional questions you have if you’re upfront about your concerns.
And here are a few quick facts to keep in mind:
- Some STDs are curable. The first 4 on the list above, chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis, can be successfully treated with antibiotics. But if you’re already dealing with other chronic conditions, your recovery could be more challenging. Your health provider will need to take your current health condition and a review of other medications you’re using into account before recommending treatment.
- Some STDs are incurable. Genital herpes, hepatitis B, HPV, and HIV are viral infections that will be with you for life. They can be managed with medications that help to reduce outbreaks and the level of virus in your blood, but it is still possible to infect sexual partners for as long as the virus is in your system.
- STDs can make you feel pretty crummy and present serious health risks if untreated. Among the more frightening conditions for seniors are certain types of cancer, increased chance of contracting HIV, heart damage, blindness, arthritic inflammation, and pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Certain STDs, like herpes and HPV, are transmissible through skin-to-skin contact. So even if you’re not engaging in intercourse, oral, or anal sex, if you or your partner are infected, you are at risk for sharing the virus.
- Some STDs can go undetected for years, especially if there are no symptoms or the symptoms are mild and ignored. Both you and your health provider may attribute certain symptoms to something different than STDs. This can result in delayed diagnosis and treatment, and lead to other complications.
- The decline in seniors’ immune systems makes this population more susceptible to infections, and therefore at higher risk for STDs.
- The increase in infection rates among seniors over the last 5 years is cause for concern. For men and women over age 65, syphilis cases more than doubled, chlamydia cases nearly doubled, and the case count for gonorrhea almost tripled. (Note that the highest numbers of infections occurred in people ages 15 to 24.)
Seniors practicing safe sex
Practicing safe sex starts in your brain – thinking about your current or planned sexual activity, knowing your risks, and understanding that STDs love a good opportunity to spread to another host, which could be your unwitting partner.
If you’ve been in a monogamous relationship for many years, your level of risk is probably low.
And let this be a guiding light: STDs are preventable.
Here are some safety measures for everyone.
- Be an advocate for yourself when visiting your healthcare provider, who may assume you are not sexually active because of your age. If your doctor doesn’t ask about your sexual history and current activity, it’s up to you to bring it up.
- If you aren’t sure, get tested. Medicare Part B covers annual STD screenings. Start by asking your doctor, but if your preferred clinic doesn’t offer STD testing, check with one of the public health facilities in King County, most of which offer confidential testing.
- If you do have an STD, get it treated before coupling with a new partner. If you’re managing an incurable STD, you must let potential partners know, and you should avoid intimate contact during an outbreak.
- Learn the proper way to use condoms or dams and make sure you’re prepared by having them on hand. This point applies to everyone, men and women alike. Preparation is key.
- Open a frank discussion with new partners. Your health and happiness depend on it.
Maintaining good health is a topic close to our hearts at SeaCare In-Home Care Services. We offer support for aging safely at home and personal care services, among others. Let us help with these and more of your caregiving needs.
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.