Healthier men, no matter their age, are going to have better sex more frequently and desire it more often than healthier women.
And a healthier sex life could mean a longer life.
That's according to a paper written by University of Chicago researchers that was published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal. While the supposition that men think about sex more than women isn't new, the paper's findings have wider implication for attitudes toward public health and how patients respond to doctors' advice, said Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and geriatric medicine who spearheaded the research.
"If you are a man diagnosed with diabetes or high blood pressure and I tell you that you need to lose weight and take medication, and I can say the benefit is five extra years of sex life, you might be more inclined to do what I tell you," she explained.
Lindau said that women generally reported wanting less sex or receiving it less often for three reasons: Women outlive men by an average of five to six years and without a partner, women are less likely to engage in sex. Secondly, there's a Western cultural acceptance -- and removal of stigma -- of men who have erectile dysfunction and have turned to relatively recently marketed drugs such as Viagra; women don't have that.
"Also, there's a difference in how we treat women for other diseases that affect their sexual desire," Lindau said. "If a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer and she has, for example, her breasts removed, and we never counsel her about her sexual function, we start to realize how many years of life she's losing. Not doing those things could mean 10 years of lost sexual activity."
There are no FDA approved treatments for female sexual dysfunction other than estrogen to treat pain with intercourse, she said.
Lindau's paper was sponsored by the nonprofit National Institutes of Health.
The paper considers data from two previously published studies that included more than 6,000 men and women, split into two co-ed groups: The first was age 25 to 74. The second group was age 57 to 85. Ninety-eight percent of participants reported having sexual partners only of the opposite sex, she said. Roughly 80 percent of men and 65 percent of women in the study were married or living with a partner.
None of the study's participants was in a nursing home.
Questions were presented that asked them to give their relationship status and rate their health and the quality of their sex life from poor to excellent.
Excellent was defined not by the number of times someone had sex but the emotional and physical satisfaction of the experience. But, the survey described having sex "regularly" as two to three times a month, said Lindau.
Sex was defined to the 57- to 85-year-old group as "any mutually voluntary activity with another person that involves sexual contact, whether or not intercourse or orgasm occurs" in the past year. For the same time frame, those in the 25-74 age group were asked if they had "had sex with anyone."
Participants had the option of assigning a number rating to their sex life, including "0" for "the worst possible situation." That phrase was up to them to interpret, said Lindau.
Women who initiate relationships later in life -- they describe passionate love and sex like the way younger people do.
The physician concluded that men are more likely to be sexually active, have what they believe is better sex and are consistently more interested in sex than women. This drive for sex among men and the feeling that the sex they get is high quality doesn't diminish with age. Lindau said it was difficult to ascertain exactly how many of these participants might have taken erectile dysfunction drugs.
If men stay in good shape, they can enjoy more years of good sex, the study says. At age 55, men in very good or excellent health on average gained five to seven years of sexually active life compared with their peers in poorer health. Women in very good shape gained 3 to 6 more years of a quality sex life than women who are less healthy.
For women 60 years and older, sex dropped off significantly overall and was even lower among those without partners. For men in that age range, having a partner didn't matter -- they still wanted sex consistently, the study found.
Among 75- to 85-year-old men, four out of 10 were still having sex, compared with two out of 10 women that age. Women whose partners were still alive, however, were having just as much sex as men, said Lindau.
"I don't want to perpetuate the notion that older women don't desire sex," she said. "There's a glass half full here. There's a big hunk of older women still having sex. Women who initiate relationships later in life -- they describe passionate love and sex like the way younger people do."
Lindau said she was frustrated that her sampling was limited to heterosexuals, a typical quandary many experience when testing this topic, she said. She hopes to conduct another study focusing on aging homosexuals, bisexuals or people whose biological sex cannot be classified as either male or female.