The latest findings from the National Poll on Healthy Aging (NPHA) survey showed sharp differences along the lines of health, age and gender. It also stressed the need for better communication so people can discuss sex-related issues with their health providers. 

Participants comprised of a nationally representative sample of 1,002 people, and the poll was conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

Gauging interest in sex

Roughly three-quarters of people between the ages of 65 and 80 have a romantic partner. More than half of the age group believed sex was important to their quality of life. But regardless of whether they had an active sex life or not, nearly two-thirds of older adults stated they were interested in intercourse.

According to the findings, 54 percent of those with a partner reported being sexually active while 73 percent of all respondents reported being satisfied with their current sex life.

Talking about sexual health

Dr. Erica Solway, associate director of the NPHA, stated sexual health among older adults can be linked to their quality of life, health, and well-being. 

"It's important for older adults and the clinicians who care for them to talk about these issues and about how age-related changes in physical health, relationships, lifestyles and responsibilities such as caregiving, affect them," she said.

Only 17 percent of older adults talked with their doctor or other healthcare providers about sexual health in the past two years. In most cases, patients brought the subject up first which may suggest "the need for more proactive conversations by clinicians."

Nearly 18 percent of older men (1 in 5) and 3 percent of older women used medications or supplements to improve sexual function over the past two years.

Gender, age, and health as factors

Sharp differences were observed when the respondents were divided on the basis of health, age, and gender.

Among respondents with excellent to good health, 45 percent reported they were sexually active. Among those who were of fair or poor health, only 22 percent stated they were sexually active. The latter group also reported feeling less satisfied with their sex lives.

In terms of age group differences, those between the ages of 65 and 70 were nearly twice as likely to be sexually active or interested in sex when compared to those in their late 70s.

Lastly, gender appeared to be a significant factor. While women were less likely to be sexually active (31 percent of women compared with 51 percent of men), they were more chances of them being satisfied with their sex lives overall. When asked if sex was an important part of a romantic relationship, 84 percent of older men agreed compared to 69 percent of older women.

Takeaway from the findings

"This survey just confirms that the need for and interest in sexual intimacy doesn't stop at a certain age," said Dr. Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research for AARP.

She added there was room for improvement in terms of communication as health care providers should routinely ask older patients about their sexual health without worrying about offending them. Eighty eight percent of the poll respondents who talked with their provider about their sexual health reported feeling comfortable in doing so.