Having and maintaining a good and active sexual relationship with your life-long partner can help save your life, it seems.

Although there is little research to say that healthy sexual relations can make you live a longer and healthier life, there is plenty of research that shows sexual problems or emotional distancing between couples negatively affects health, particularly for middle-aged and older men.

"Sexual dysfunction can be an indictor of other health problems," notes Linda Fisher, associate research director of the AARP. With the assistance of well-known sex researcher John McKinlay, AARP/Modern Maturity last year released a survey of adults aged 45 and older aimed at discovering their attitudes and sexual activity. That survey, like others, revealed that only a fraction of adults with sexual dysfunction are seeking treatment.

Most significantly, heart disease and depression are strongly linked to sexual dysfunction, particularly erectile dysfunction in men. Cardiac problems and depression are two common conditions for middle-aged and older men. And about 25 percent of men by age 50 have at least moderate levels of sexual dysfunction, while half of all men by age 70 have at least moderate degrees of sexual dysfunction, most commonly erectile dysfunction.

"Erectile dysfunction is an early warning sign of a heart attack, says McKinlay, director of the New England Research Institutes and principal investigator on the landmark Massachusetts Male Aging Study. Erectile dysfunction is a circulatory problem, and any clogging problems (the buildup of plaque in blood vessel walls that blocks the flow of blood) will appear in the smaller penile blood vessels before they appear in larger vessels going to the heart, McKinlay says. Erectile dysfunction is easily treated in most men and can save a man's life too.

The release of tension and sense of relaxation and well being after orgasm has demonstrated short-term positive effects on health, says Jennifer Bass, spokesperson for the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. And regular sex has been shown to maintain hormonal levels that "promote good health, retard aging and increase fertility (by regulating menstrual cycles)," Winifred Cutler cites in the book "Love Cycles."