EATING HEALTHY FOODS, EXERCISING, and keeping your mind active are often touted as the keys to healthy aging. But, a satisfying sex life may be just as important.
A new study published in The Gerontologist, tracked the connection between erectile function, sexual satisfaction, and cognition in more than 800 men as they got older. They found that declines in sexual satisfaction and erectile function were associated with memory loss later in life.
Researchers used data from men who participated in the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging, which is a longitudinal study of the risks and protective factors for cognitive and brain aging. Memory and processing speed tests examined the cognitive changes of the men over a 12-year period (from the age of 56 to 68). The International Index of Erectile Function, a self-reported assessment, was used to measure erectile function and sexual satisfaction.
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The study examined how memory and sexual function changed together over time. Tyler Bell, Ph.D., a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California San Diego and a co-author of the study, says more research is needed to uncover the underlying reasons for the connection—whether it could be related to small blood vessel deterioration, quality of life, or self-perception.
“What intrigued us was the fact that this association persisted even when accounting for major cardiovascular conditions, hypertension, and other well-known risk factors for cognitive decline,” Bell says.
The findings are important because men often equate erectile function with their overall health, says Paurush Babbar, M.D., a urologist at The Urology Group in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Sometimes men will not come in to see a physician if they’re having chest pain or if their family is noticing they’re more forgetful, but, sometimes, a decrease in sexual prowess may prompt patients to come to their physician,” he says.
Here’s what you should know about the link between your sexual health and physical health as you get older, and when you should talk to your doctor about sexual problems.
The Relationship Between Sexual Health and Overall Health
Many factors cause erectile dysfunction, including age, high blood pressure, obesity, and being generally inactive, according to the Urology Care Foundation. ED can also affect your mental and physical health, relationships, and self-esteem.
Erectile function is often a warning sign of cardiovascular disease, and men with the condition are at a higher risk for a heart attack, stroke, or circulation problems in their legs, according to the Urology Care Foundation.
“The theory behind why all these things relate is that the blood flow—the arteries that supply the penis, the brain, the heart—is a very small caliber of vessels,” Dr. Babbar says. “What erectile dysfunction is, is impaired blood flow to the penis.”
Plaque can also build up in the brain and decrease blood flow, which can increase cognitive impairment and dementia, he adds.
Sexual Satisfaction and Your Risk for Dementia
Quality of life and satisfaction in your life are strong predictors of cognitive function, Bell explains. “Sexual satisfaction is a facet of life satisfaction.” A 2016 study found that when people rated their life satisfaction just one point higher, it was linked to a 28 percent lower dementia risk five years later.
Aspects of your lifestyle, like alcohol use, obesity, smoking, depression, social isolation, and physical inactivity, affect your quality of life and are considered risk factors for dementia. Some of these might influence your erectile function and sexual satisfaction, too.
“We can all work on modifying these factors now and use our life satisfaction as a gauge for where we are at with our dementia risk factors,” Bell says, adding that ignoring your sexual health as you age could negatively affect your memory.
When you’re having sexual problems, it tends to also cause psychological distress and embarrassment, Dr. Babbar says. Chronic stress has been linked to an increased risk for dementia.
How to Improve Sexual Health and Satisfaction
Taking steps to improve your sexual satisfaction could reduce your risk for memory loss down the road, says Riki Slayday, M.S., a doctoral candidate at Penn State University and co-lead author on the new study.
“Alterations in sexual health serve as a warning sign, akin to a red light on the dashboard, urging us to pause and assess our physical and mental well-being,” she adds. “It becomes particularly worrisome if accompanied by emerging memory problems, warranting immediate communication with a physician.”
Early detection of erectile problems and cognitive issues could help you avoid serious complications in the future. So talking to your doctor is crucial.
Too often, men feel a stigma around erectile dysfunction and sexual problems, Dr. Babbar says. But, he adds that about 40 percent of men over 40 will experience some form of erectile dysfunction.
“This is an exceedingly common thing, and a lot of times, it’s part of getting older,” he explains. “I always tell patients: You may not choose to have erectile dysfunction, but you certainly can choose to get treated for it.”
Treatment includes taking a comprehensive health history, examining the stressors in your life, and checking testosterone levels, Dr. Babbar says. Depending on your situation, doctors may prescribe medications like Viagra or Cialis, which encourage blood flow to your penis. Vacuum erectile devices or penile implants might also be recommended.
Sexual satisfaction should be included in the advice men are typically given to stay healthy, including eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising, Dr. Babbar says. “You should also aim for good erections and good satisfaction with your sex life,” he adds.
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.
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