Friendship and confiding in spouse eases
stress over sexual issues in older men
CORVALLIS, OR, May 2010 – A new study suggests that it may
not help older men and women with sexual
problems to talk to a doctor, but men who
talk to their partner report greater
happiness – and those who talked with
friends felt less depressed.
The research, to be published in the Journal of
Gerontology: Social Sciences, shows that
the way men and women deal with sexual
health and stress in their later years
varies greatly and that there is not one
solution that can help ease unhappiness
caused by sexual problems.
The research was conducted by Ryo Hirayama, a Ph.D. student
in Oregon State University's Department of
Human Development and Family Sciences, and
professor Alexis Walker, who is the Jo Anne
L. Petersen Chair in Gerontology and Family
Studies at OSU. The study was conducted with
data from the National Social Life, Health,
and Aging Project.
The Oregon State researchers looked at 861 people ages 57
to 85 who were married or had an intimate
partner, and who reported having at least
one sexual problem.
The sexual problems reported by older adults included lack
of interest in sex, inability to climax,
physical pain during sex, maintaining an
erection, or lubrication issues.
Respondents were asked to indicate on a scale from 1 to 3
how bothered they were by each problem they
listed. They also were asked about their
well-being, which the researchers measured
by using typical scales for happiness and
for depressive symptoms.
The study yielded several surprising findings.
First, fewer than half of older adults with sexual
problems discussed these problems with their
doctors, although men were more likely to do
so than women. In addition, whether older
adults discussed these issues with their
physicians did not make a difference in
"This was our most unexpected outcome," Hirayama said.
"Older adults are advised to talk to their doctors about
sexual health issues, but not all people do
so and talking with a physician is not as
helpful as you might expect."
However, confiding in a partner or with friends was found
to be effective for many men in reducing
stress and unhappiness related to sexual
problems. Unfortunately for women, this same
benefit was not reported.
"In fact, women with higher levels of sexual stress who
confided in their close friends reported
lower happiness," Hirayama said. "We aren't
quite sure what to make of this finding."
Women did not see any reduction in stress or well-being
(unhappiness and depression) when they
talked to their spouses either.
"What this tells is that women's sexual issues are complex,
and that complexity needs to be recognized,"
"A woman with a great deal of sexual concerns could feel
threatened by talking to her spouse about
it, or perhaps simply confiding in a friend
is not enough."
Since the largest effect size was seen with men who
confided in both spouses and friends, the
researchers said the result brings into
critical focus the importance for men in
middle and later life of confiding in family
members and friends.
"The finding is striking because most people presume men do
not have confidants," Hirayama said.
Hirayama is doing his doctoral studies on
male identity issues and men's social ties
in current society.
"Men are not believed to be functioning socially in our
society, yet research increasingly shows
that social networks can be a critical part
of a man's life, especially as he ages," he
Walker, who has done research in the gerontology field for
decades, said the medicalization of aging
makes some people feel as if there is a
"fix" for everything. She said that in some
cases, certain sexual issues might just be
part of the aging process and that the
important part is that couples keep the
lines of communication open.
"In the general context of sex and aging, the rule is 'use
it or lose it,'" Walker said.
"The best prediction of sexual activity is to continue to
be sexually active throughout your adult
life, to make it a part of your life. But it
is also true that older people can have
sexual problems, and sometimes there are
ways to work around these issues by
emphasizing other activities you enjoy as a