The Grapevine

Memory Loss In Old Age Happens Despite Sexual, Emotional Intimacy

From pain relief to improved quality of sleep, sex is often linked to numerous health benefits. Given that improved cognitive ability in older adults is said to be one of the benefits, a new study investigated how much truth there was to the link.

The paper titled "Sexual Activity and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults" was published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior on May 16.

Age-related cognitive decline usually displays mild to moderate symptoms but can become severe in cases of dementia. Researchers highlight numerous factors such as education levels, physical activity, smoking, and alcohol intake as possible influencers. Some studies have even suggested a link between sexual intimacy and better brain power, which may be particularly beneficial for older adults.

For instance, a 2017 study with participants aged 50-83 found that sexually active adults scored better in terms of verbal fluency and visuospatial ability. Another study examined middle-aged rats and suggested sexual activity may help the brain develop new neurons.

Mark Allen, a senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong in Australia, authored the new paper to investigate this link. He conducted an analysis of 2012 data and 2014 data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA).

The information on adults over the age of 50 residing in England revealed details about their health, diet, well-being and socio-economic status. Additionally, the participants completed an episodic memory task and answered a questionnaire on how frequently they engaged in intimate activities such as kissing, sexual touching, and sexual intercourse. Comprising of 2,672 men and 3,344 women, a total of 6,016 participants were studied.

"After controlling for demographic and health-related lifestyle factors, more frequent sexual activity and greater emotional closeness during partnered sexual activity were associated with better memory performance," the paper stated. However, an overall decline was observed in the scores of all participants on the memory test over the two-year period.

"Decline in memory performance over time was unrelated to sexual activity or emotional closeness during partnered sexual activity," Allen said. This suggested that better performances on memory tests may occur on a short-term basis, but do not sustain over a long period. 

The findings were published on the same day as another study in which researchers from the United Kingdom examined whether exercise could slow brain decline in dementia patients.

As many as 329 participants diagnosed with dementia took up gym sessions (lasting 60 to 90 minutes) twice a week for a period of four months. Lead author Sallie Lamb, a professor at Oxford University, found that participants could improve their overall fitness and build muscle. 

"But these benefits do not, however, translate into improvements in cognitive impairment, activities in daily living, behavior, or health-related quality of life," she said.

Intimacy during old age and physical activity are still encouraged as they are linked to numerous other benefits apart from boosting brain power. Nevertheless, the authors of both the studies recommended conducting larger trials across longer timeframes in order to confirm their findings.