Sensory Dysfunction Linked to Sexual Activity in Older Adults

Institute Member Emerita Martha McClintock, Ph.D. and colleagues conduct first nationally representative study of sexuality and multisensory dysfunction


Zhong, S., Pinto, J.M., Wroblewski, K.E., & McClintock, M.K. (2018). Sensory Dysfunction and Sexuality in the U.S. Population of Older Adults. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 15(4), 502-509. doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2018.01.021. PubMed PMID: 29501426. PMCID: PMC5882521.


The sexual experience is shaped by sensory function; with aging, sensory dysfunction may interfere with sexuality and sexual behavior between partners. Specifically, older adults with age-related sensory dysfunction may have less sexual activity than those with better sensory function. In addition, since sexual desire and attraction rests in part upon sensory function, sensory dysfunction may also be associated with less sexual motivation.

To test the association between sexual activity and motivation in older adults and their sensory dysfunction.

Sensory dysfunction was measured both by global sensory impairment (a validated measure of dysfunction shared among the 5 classic senses: olfaction, vision, taste, touch, hearing) and by total sensory burden (cumulative sensory loss). Sexual activity was quantified by frequency and type of sexual behavior. Sexual motivation was measured by the frequency of sexual ideation and the importance of sex to the respondent. We used cross-sectional data from a nationally representative sample of community-dwelling older adults (aged 57-85 years) in the United States (National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, N = 3,005) in logistic regression analyses.

Sexual activity, sexual motivation, and satisfaction with the sexual relationship were self-reported.

Older adults with sensory dysfunction were less likely to be sexually active-an association that persisted when accounting for other factors that also affected sexual activity (age, gender, partnered status, mental and physical health, and relationship satisfaction). Nonetheless, sensory dysfunction did not impair sexual motivation, nor affect the physical and emotional satisfaction with the sexual relationship. Among currently sexually active older adults, sensory dysfunction did not affect the frequency of sex or the type of sexual activity (foreplay, vaginal intercourse, or oral sex). These results were the same for 2 different measures of sensory dysfunction.

This is the first nationally representative study of sexuality and multisensory dysfunction in community-dwelling older adults. 4 of the 5 classic senses were measured with objective tests, and hearing was rated by interviewers in the context of their conversation. Medical and health care interventions that can reduce the burden of sensory dysfunction may improve older adults’ sexual experience.

Sensory dysfunction is associated with sexual inactivity, but not with sexual motivation. Among those who are sexually active, sensory dysfunction did not interfere with sexual expression. Improving the sexual experience of older adults requires a focus on sensory dysfunction as an impediment to sexual activity given that older adults remain sexually motivated.

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