04:44pm Thursday 27 July 2017

An active sex life improves brain power in older adults

Older adults who lead an active sex life are more likely to have increased cognitive function, according to a new Oxford University research collaboration.

The study which was conducted in partnership with the University of Coventry, found that people over the age of fifty, who engaged in above average levels of sexual activity, scored higher in a series of tests than others.

A total of 73 people, (28 men and 45 women), took part in the study, findings from which were recently published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological and Social Sciences.

Participants were asked to complete a series of questions assessing their general wellbeing and how often, on average, they engaged in sexual intercourse. Respondents then selected answers of either; never, monthly or weekly. The tests measured an individual’s verbal fluency and their ability to visualise objects and the spaces between them.

For the verbal fluency criteria, participants were asked a series of questions that could reflect their cognitive abilities. They included; naming as many animals as possible in 60 seconds, and then to say as many words beginning with the letter ‘F’ as they could.

They also took part in activities to determine their visuospatial ability, and tests included copying an intricate design and drawing a clock face from memory.

Respondents who were the most sexually active scored the most highly in both sets of tests. However, the results suggested that frequency of sex had no impact on people’s attention span, memory capacity or language skills. In these areas participants performed equally well, regardless of whether they reported frequent sexual activity or none at all.

The study builds on previous research from 2016, which found that older adults who were more sexually active scored highly on cognitive tests than those who were less so.

Dr Nele Demeyere, Co-author and Associate Professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, said; ‘This study improves on earlier findings drawing a link between sexual activity and cognitive health as measured in a very brief generalised 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.

‘This finer-grained information now tells us that the protective effects of sexual activity seen before may not be related to typical verbal memory measures (as you would relate to early signs of Alzheimer’s dementia), but instead they seem linked to a dopamine controlled system of executive function and working memory.

‘The second most common form of dementia is vascular dementia, typified by early decline in executive function rather than memory.  Current work in my translational neuropsychology group includes the development of new, more sensitive cognitive measures to detect early signs of vascular dementia (note: not the ones used in this study). 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 ageing and dementia.’

Moving forward, further research could shed light on the role that human biology influences why sexually activity seems to influence cognitive function, and in what way. The team are specifically interested in the impact of hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin.

Lead researcher Dr Hayley Wright of Coventry University’s Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement, said; ‘We can only speculate whether this is driven by social or physical elements – but an area we would like to research further is the biological mechanisms that may influence this.

‘Every time we do another piece of research we are getting a little bit closer to understanding why this association exists at all, what the underlying mechanisms are, and whether there is a ‘cause and effect’ relationship between sexual activity and cognitive function in older people.

‘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.’

University of Oxford


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