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Sexual Problems and Activity by the Numbers

Between a third and a half of peri- and postmenopausal women experience one or more sexual problems.

The previous pages in this section discussed how common individual sexual problems are among women at midlife and beyond. Taken together, scientific studies suggest that between a third and a half of peri- and postmenopausal women experience one or more of the sexual problems discussed earlier. The important question of how frequently these problems are bothersome to women has only recently been thoroughly examined, and studies often have varying findings because of differences in the way they are conducted. However, it is clear that while all sexual problems are more common in older women (ages 65 and over), distress from these problems is more widespread in women at midlife (ages 45 to 64) and declines in later years.1

Sexual activity among older adults. You may wonder how sexually active older adults are anyway and how much all of this matters. Despite popular perceptions, many men and women remain sexually active well beyond midlife and into old age. The table below lists rates of various sexual activities as reported by women in a nationally representative 2009 telephone survey of 5,045 US adults ages 50 or older.10

 

Sexual activity among older US women*

 Age (years)

50-59

60-69 

70-79

80+

 Masturbated in previous year

 54% 

46%

36%

20%

 Had intercourse (penis-vagina) in previous year

 51% 

42%

27%

8%

 Received oral sex in previous year

 34% 

25% 

9%

4%

*In a 2009 national survey of 5,045 older adults published in 
Journal of Sexual Medicine (2010;7[suppl 5]:315-329).
 

The survey showed that many women have a high frequency of sexual activity well beyond midlife. Among women in their 50s, 36% reported having intercourse at least a few times per month and 17% reported masturbating at least a few times per month. Among women in their 60s, these percentages were 29% and 10%, respectively. 

As the table shows, sexual activity declines with age in women, which is also the case for men. This survey and others have shown that men are more likely than women to be sexually active after midlife, and the gap widens with increasing age. This is partly because men are more likely to have a partner in later life, due to women’s longer life spans. At older ages, there are more women than men. In addition, a large survey of US adults ages 57 to 85 found that more than one in three women (35%) rated sex as “not at all important” to their lives, compared with only 13% of men.5

Sexual problems go unreported. Despite how often women are troubled by sexual problems, most women don’t discuss these problems with their healthcare providers. In a survey of US women ages 57 to 85, only 22% reported that they had discussed sex with a physician since they had turned 50.5

A more recent study looked specifically at whether and how women seek help from their healthcare providers for sexual problems. This study involved more than 3,200 women ages 18 or older who reported problems of sexual desire, arousal, and/or orgasm that they found troubling. Just over one third of these women sought out help for their sexual problem from a healthcare provider, usually a gynecologist or primary care physician. About 80% of the time, it was the woman, rather than the provider, who started the discussion about the problem.11

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