How does aging affect sexual health?

Aging and Sexual Health in Men and Women

Omnipresent erectile dysfunction advertisements have made us all aware of these little blue pills.
Omnipresent erectile dysfunction advertisements have made us all aware of these little blue pills.
Associated Press/Toby Talbot

Anyone who's watched a few hours of television recently may be all too aware that some older men suffer from erectile dysfunction, thanks to the many advertisements for medications designed to cure that ill. Both aging men and women experience changes in the arousal stage of sexual activity. For men, that means that it may take longer to achieve an erection, the erection may not be as stiff as it once was and more time is necessary before another erection is a possibility. Women also need more time to become aroused, and, thanks to menopause, experience changes in the vagina that may make sex painful. These changes include a thinning of the vaginal lining, vaginal dryness and a reduced ability to stretch the vagina.

These slower arousal times aren't helped by the fact that many aging people simply don't find themselves in the mood for romance anymore, which means they may not spend as much time getting warmed up before the main attraction. To some extent, menopause's roller coaster of hormonal fluctuations accounts for drops in desire in women. When the body stops producing estrogen, women suffer hot flashes, headaches and fatigue, to name but a few symptoms, which are hardly states that put anyone in the mood. In both sexes, however, the key to your libido is the hormone testosterone, which decreases in men gradually over time and in women during menopause. As levels of this hormone decline, men and women experience mood changes, decreased arousal and less energy.

It's not fair to use "Not tonight, dear, I have menopause," as an excuse to get out of sex, however. As at any age, sexual desire and arousal can be affected by your emotional state, so erectile dysfunction or a weakened libido could be the result of something else, such as stress or depression. These feelings may only be exacerbated by the cultural images of sexuality presented -- if you only see young, healthy people being sensual on television, you may have a hard time feeling desirable in a body that has been around the block a few times. And what may be a one-time experience of erectile dysfunction could turn into a recurring problem if the male becomes embarrassed or frustrated and the female takes it as a sign that she's not attractive anymore.

If emotional problems weren't enough to deal with, sexual desire and arousal can also be affected by your physical health. Prostate, cervical and breast cancer can all affect sexuality, as can heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. Medications such as ACE inhibitors, antidepressants, beta blockers and diuretics can also play a role.