While some scientific news can be boring or unnecessarily complex, a new study is pretty straightforward and definitely not dull. For older adults, having an active sex life can improve their brain power.
The study was a collaboration between Oxford University and the University of Coventry, and it was recently published in the Journal of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological and Social Sciences.
The study was small but is getting plenty of attention. 73 study volunteers, comprised of 28 men and 45 women, completed surveys on their general health, sexual activity and frequency and other lifestyle factors. The choices on the frequency of sexual activity were categorized into general answers, rather than specific numbers. Participants listed sexual activity as either never, monthly, or weekly. They also underwent a series of cognitive tests on spatial awareness, verbal fluency, and memory. Questions included asking how many animals could be named in 60 seconds as well as listing words that began with a certain letter, which was F. Tests that measured spatial awareness involved drawing, either copying an intricate design or drawing the face of a watch from memory.
Study co-author Dr. Nele Demeyere, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University explained, “We look forward to applying these measures in large population studies to give both increased depth and breadth of cognitive measures, moving away from a singular focus on memory as the key domain of research into aging and dementia.”
So how did the scores come out? Those who reported the most sexual activity had the highest scores on spatial awareness and verbal fluency. In other cognitive areas, there was no difference between the more sexual activity reported and performance in areas of attention span, language skills or memory.
The research was a follow-up to earlier research into the correlation of sexual activity and cognitive function. While the study was small, Demeyere explained how that was not necessarily a drawback, “This study improves on earlier findings drawing a link between sexual activity and cognitive health as measured in a very brief generalized way. Where these population studies have large representative samples, they often pay a price in terms of the range and detail of available measures. Smaller studies like this allow us to test which aspects of cognition are affected. The main effect on the total test score was explained particularly by one of the subtests, which gives a measure of fluency. Though these tests may seem straightforward, it requires strong executive control to shift to new information, update your memory and inhibit previous responses.”
The research teams at Oxford and Coventry think that the increased sexual activity impacts circulation and dopamine levels. Vascular dementia is the second most common form of memory loss in older adults, and it impacts executive function, which is what was measured, rather than just memory. While many studies on dementia focus mostly on memory, executive function should be looked at as well, since any deficit in this area can seriously impact quality of life for older adults. Having difficulty remembering how to perform tasks like making a cup of coffee or folding laundry involve executive function and it’s in these kinds of daily activity that some older people struggle.
Dr. Hayley Wright of Coventry University's Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement and lead researcher on the study, added, “People don’t like to think that older people have sex – but we need to challenge this conception at a societal level and look at what impact sexual activity can have on those aged 50 and over, beyond the known effects on sexual health and general wellbeing” The video below (rated G!) explains more about the results.