Low sexual desire, related distress not uncommon in older women

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Just because social attitudes toward sex at older ages are more positive than in the past doesn't mean all older women have positive feelings about sex, according to a new Australian study.

Researchers found that nearly 90 per cent of women over 70 in the study had low sexual desire and a much smaller proportion were distressed about it. The combination of low desire and related distress is known as hypoactive sexual desire dysfunction (HSDD) and nearly 14 per cent of women had it.

Older people are increasingly remaining sexually active and sexual wellbeing is important to them, said senior author Susan R. Davis of Monash University in Melbourne.

"This is probably because people for this age are healthier now than people of this age in past decades," Davis told Reuters Health by email.

10 ways a woman can increase her sex drive

  • The more you have sex, the easier it is to become aroused. The less you do it, the less you want to do it - your body just forgets about its sex drive. So having 'maintenance sex' with your husband is important. It keeps the juices flowing and also helps him feel good about the relationship, keeps you connected, and helps your own libido.

    Tip: Allow your husband to touch you sexually, whether you're in the mood or not. Nerves that are wired to parts of the brain involved in sexual excitement will be stimulated, and physical arousal will likely follow.

  • There are many over-the-counter lubricants, gels, massage oils, and sex toys available to increase your libido. Arousal gels can help get you in the mood and heighten pleasurable sensations. The gel is applied topically to the clitoris, boosting sensitivity and creating warmth to increase enjoyment during intimacy.

    Tip: Pour yourself a glass of wine and navigate to www.cleansheets.com. A little bit of erotic reading can help you get into the mood!

  • Hormonal changes take a big toll on your sex drive. Contraceptive pills can be one of the biggest culprits - they can reduce your production of testosterone, which affects your level of sexual arousal. Certain types of medication can also dry you up down there, making sex painful.

    Tip: Triphasic birth control pills (which deliver different amounts of hormones every week) may interfere less with your sex drive than monophasic pills (which deliver the same amount of hormones at each dose).

  • If extra weight is keeping you from being intimate with your husband, losing it will help jump start your sex drive. Start by cutting out white, refined flours and sugars from your diet, eating a lighter dinner and drinking six to eight glasses of water a day to help shed the weight.

    Tip: While it's important to love and accept your body at any size, if you're overweight, losing even five kilos can stimulate your sex hormones.

  • Everyday stressors like work, your children's grades or a nagging mother-in-law affect your sex life more than you may realise. When you're stressed, your body produces more cortisol. This hormone, which is needed by your body in small doses, can decrease sexual desire when there is an excess. So before bedtime, find a way to clear your mind and release the stress of the day, whether it's a warm bath or listening to some calming music.

    Tip: Indulge in sex fantasies - thinking about sex will increase your desire and make you more likely to initiate it. (Photo: StockUnlimited)

  • A study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found a link between high cholesterol and women with difficulty in arousal and orgasm. When cholesterol builds up in the arteries, it restricts blood flow, even to your pelvic area. This can lead to decreased vaginal sensation, making it harder to achieve an orgasm.

    Tip: Keep your cholesterol in a healthy range by loading up on fruits and vegetables and cutting down on animal fats and whole-milk products.

  • A low sex drive can also be a sign of relationship problems outside the bedroom. Whether it's minor issues or something more serious, professional help from a marriage or family therapist can open the lines of communication again. If the only problem in the relationship is sex, then seeing a sex therapist can be helpful.

    Tip: Have a spa day together - studies show that steam rooms boost blood flow and naturally increase libido.

  • Pelvic floor exercises, or Kegel exercises, can improve your awareness of the muscles involved in orgasm. To do these exercises, tighten your pelvic muscles as if you're stopping a stream of urine, then hold, relax and repeat. You can do it several times a day, even while you're walking, watching TV or at your desk.

    Tip: Start with at least four or five reps of two-second holds, three times a day, and work up to 10-second holds.

  • Yoga does more than just get you flexible - it may also be a libido booster, according to the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. Yoga makes you more familiar with your body and helps you get in touch with your sexuality. It can also improve your orgasms by increasing blood flow down there.

    Tip: The Kneeling Core Plank is particularly good for increasing female sex drive.

  • Holding hands with your hubby is sweet, but can it also make for better sex? Definitely - even little acts of touching your partner - especially spontaneously - prompts your body to release the hormone oxytocin, which may boost closeness and arousal. Studies have shown that even 20-second hugs can help people feel more bonded.

    Tip: Hug and cuddle your man whenever you can, and choose unexpected times to touch your husband to spark feelings of intimacy and trigger sexual desire.

A random national sample of women ages 65 to 79 was contacted by phone and invited to take part in a women's health study. Those who agreed received questionnaires asking about demographic data, partner status and health history, including menopausal symptoms, vaginal dryness, pelvic floor dysfunction, depression symptoms, sexual activity and sexual distress.

Of the 1,548 women who completed and returned the questionnaires, about half were married or partnered, 43 per cent had pelvic surgery and 26 per cent had cancer of some kind. About a third had menopausal symptoms and one in five had vaginal dryness during intercourse.

In the entire sample, 88 per cent reported having low sexual desire, 15.5 per cent had sex-related personal distress, and women with both, who qualified for HSDD, made up 13.6 per cent of the group, as reported in Menopause.

That's lower than has been reported for this age group in the past, and similar to how many women report HSDD at midlife, Davis noted.

"Considering how conservative women of this age are, we were surprised that over 85 per cent of the women completed all the questions on desire and sexual distress so we could actually assess this on most of the study participants," Davis said.

Vaginal dryness, pelvic floor dysfunction, moderate to severe depressive symptoms and having a partner were all associated with a higher likelihood of HSDD. Sexually active women, partnered or not, more often had HSDD than others.

"We would never label women with low/diminished sex drive as having HSDD," Davis said. "In our study 88 per cent had low desire and only 13.6 per cent had HSDD, this is because low desire is not an issue if you are not bothered by it."

Vaginal dryness, associated with HSDD in this study, can easily treated by low dose vaginal estrogen which is effective and safe, she said.

HSDD was also associated with urinary incontinence, depressive symptoms and hot flashes and sweats, she said.

"Even talking about the problem with a health care professional who is interested and sympathetic is a good start," Davis said. "Conversely health care professionals need to realise that many older women remain sexually active and do care about this issue."