sexy middle aged womanHmm. We could have told you that.

A while back, we reported on the results of an international survey that explored how satisfied older couples are with their relationships and sex lives. Turns out that sex continues to be important to older women, and it’s an important element in overall satisfaction with their relationships—and sometimes it’s even more important to the women than to the men.

Another survey adds a little more texture and depth to that glimpse behind the bedroom curtain. Gals, we’re sexier than we thought.

Since 1972, researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have regularly surveyed a group of residents of a southern California community to track various characteristics of health and aging.

The results of an additional survey of this group were published in the January 2012 issue of the American Journal of Medicine.Several hundred older women in the community were questioned about their sexual activity. In a mail­in survey, they were asked about how often they’d had sex in the past four weeks, about hormone use, lubrication, orgasm, and level of satisfaction.

“Sex” was broadly defined as “caressing, foreplay, masturbation, and intercourse” (of the penis-­in-­vagina variety). The women didn’t need to be partnered, and they didn’t need to be sexually active. Slightly over 800 women responded, ranging in age from 40 to 99 with a median age of 67. Most (90 percent) were in good to excellent health. Almost two­thirds were postmenopausal and 30 percent were on estrogen therapy.

What the researchers found, somewhat to their surprise, was that half the women reported being sexually active in the previous four weeks. Unsurprisingly, sexual activity declined with age (83 percent of younger women were sexually active versus 13 percent of the oldest women). Yet, one in five of the sexually active women over 80 reported arousal, lubrication, and orgasm “almost always” or “always.” They were also as satisfied with their orgasms as the youngest women in the study. (You go, girls!)

Sexual desire (libido)—or lack of it—was another surprise.

One would think that desire might precede the act itself, but not so. What the researchers found in this study was that one-­third of sexually active women had little or no sexual desire. Yet, most of them (61 percent) were satisfied with their sex lives. This suggested to the researchers that “women engage in sexual activity for multiple reasons, which may include nurture, affirmation, or sustenance of a relationship.”

The interesting thing about desire was that, although the younger women had the highest levels of desire, they were less satisfied with sex. They were also more likely to be distressed about their relative lack of desire (low libido). The oldest women, on the other hand, were more likely to be content with their sex lives and less bothered by lack of desire. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t getting any. The oldest women in the study who were sexually active experienced orgasm with the same frequency as the youngest women.

Hormone use was linked to higher libido and to greater sexual activity, but that doesn’t translate to greater emotional closeness with a partner. Emotional closeness wasn’t linked to age or use of hormones, but it was linked to more frequent sex. And most of the sexually active women in the survey were emotionally close to their partner. The researchers didn’t address the question of whether emotional closeness leads to better sex or whether good sex creates emotional intimacy. Cause or effect? Chicken or egg? I’m not sure anyone cares.

The final nugget unveiled by the study was that almost half of the women who aren’t sexually active are satisfied with their (non)­sexual lives, too. The researchers guess that they “may have achieved sexual satisfaction through touching, caressing, or other intimacies that have developed over the course of a long relationship.”

Overall, the survey seems to suggest that, given good health and a capable partner, older women are sexually active and quite content with that activity, and that, despite lack of desire, they enjoy sex just as much as younger women.

“A more positive approach to female sexual health focusing on sexual satisfaction may be more beneficial to women than a focus limited to sexual activity or dysfunction,” writes Susan Trompeter, MD, and one of the study’s authors.

Amen to that.

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