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We consider characteristics of partnered sexuality of older men and women, particularly sexual activity and sexual quality, as they affect cardiovascular risk. Cardiovascular risk is defined as hypertension, rapid heart rate, elevated CRP, and general cardiovascular events.
We find that older men are more likely to report being sexually active, report having sex more often and more enjoyably than are older women. Results from cross-lagged models suggest that high frequency of sex is positively related to later risk of cardiovascular events for men but not women, whereas good sexual quality seems to protect women but not men from cardiovascular risk in later life. We find no evidence that poor cardiovascular health interferes with later sexuality for either gender.
Involvement in social relationships has long been demonstrated to promote health Umberson and Montez The sexual relationship, which we define here as either a long- or short-term connection with a partner that includes sex, particularly sexual activity and sexual intimacy, is one of the most fundamental types of social relationships, and it has long been recognized as an essential part of human life Masters and Johnson ; Satcher ; Schnarch Yet, our scientific understanding of sexual relationships, especially the consequences of partnered sexuality for health, is in its nascent stage both theoretically and empirically.
A large body of work points to the important role of social relationships in the development and progression of this disease Liu and Waite ; Zhang and Hayward There are several reasons to expect partnered sexuality to affect cardiovascular health. First, sexual activity is a form of exercise. During sexual intercourse as well as foreplay, both men and women experience stretching of muscles and tendons, flexion of joints, and hormone fluctuation Frappier et al.
Yet, there are also clinical concerns that sexual activity may precipitate acute cardiac events for patients with a prior history of cardiovascular disease Cheitlin ; Dahabreh and Paulus ; Muller et al.
Second, the intimacy built into a sexual relationship is a source of emotional and social support, which is a key component that defines life context and in turn shapes health Schnarch Third, partnered sexuality and satisfaction with it may reduce exposure to stress, modify response to stress and promote recovery from stress Ein-Dor and Hirschberger , thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease Schwartz et al.
The present study provides the first generalizable, population-based evidence of the longitudinal links between partnered sexuality and cardiovascular risk in later life. Using a nationally representative longitudinal dataset from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project NSHAP , we assess how partnered sexual activity and sexual quality are related to cardiovascular risk for older men and women over time.
The findings speak to health policy and practice as well as to our understanding of sexuality in later life. According to the life course perspective, the developmental tasks and challenges of life change from childhood through young adulthood, middle and older ages; men and women differ in their pathways and relationship transitions across life course stages.
While much research has studied various social relationships over the life course, the sexual relationship has been largely ignored, perhaps because sex is often considered to be a private or individual behavior Harvey, Wenzel, and Sprecher We work from the life course perspective to conceptualize partnered sexuality as a unique type of social relationship that defines the life context over the life course. Sexuality varies dynamically through the socially and biologically defined stages of life Carpenter and DeLamater ; Waite and Charme Previous studies on sex and sexuality often focus on adolescence and young and middle adulthood, which are usually considered to be the most sexually active stages of life DeLamater and Sill Scientific understanding of sexual relationships in later life is limited.
A common conception is that older people do not have sex as often as their younger counterparts, and that the quality of sexual life tends to decline at older ages due to biological challenges that accompany aging DeLamater ; Kinsey, Pomeroy and Martin A sizeable share of both older men and older women agree that sex is a key part of their relationship and well-being DeLamater ; DeLamater and Sill Indeed, some scholars argue that despite a decrease in sexual frequency, the quality of sexual life sometimes improves with age because men may gain greater voluntary control over ejaculation DeLamater and Karraker Sexuality at older ages, especially among the cohorts now in these ages, is almost exclusively experienced within long-established couples, virtually all of them married.
Thus, we focus here on sexual activity with a partner, mostly the spouse, and satisfaction with that experience. Although we look at partnered sex from the perspective of the individuals involved, we speak of sexual relationships, as these are the context for sex. Note that especially at older ages, not all those with partners are sexually active; among partnered men and women aged 75 and older fewer than half had any sex with their partner in the past year Karraker and Delamater ; Lindau and Gavrilova Cardiovascular disease CVD is the leading cause of death and disability for both men and women in the U.
According to the U. This problem becomes increasingly prevalent with advancing age Go et al. Researchers from a wide range of fields are devoted to identifying the key risk factors for CVD.
However, we know little about whether and how involvement in a sexual relationship shapes cardiovascular risk. Both empirical and theoretical research on the effects of sexuality on cardiovascular health is still rare Dahabreh and Paulus ; Levine et al. Moreover, the current limited empirical evidence on this topic is restricted to small, non-representative clinical or community samples Dahabreh and Paulus ; Levine et al. For example, a Welsh longitudinal study of men aged 45—59 recruited between and finds that men with more frequent sexual intercourse tend to have lower risks of experiencing ischemic stroke and coronary heart disease events during the twenty-year follow up Ebrahim et al.
Another study based on the same Welsh dataset finds that men who experience more orgasms have lower risks of dying from coronary heart disease Smith, Frankel, and Yarnell Other clinical-based studies also find evidence of health benefits from sexual activity and suggest that increased frequency of vaginal intercourse is associated with better mental health outcomes as well as healthier heart rate variability and lower risk of mortality see a review in Brody At the same time, there are also some clinical concerns that sexual activity may trigger acute cardiac events especially for patients with a prior history of CVD Cheitlin ; Dahabreh and Paulus ; Muller et al.
Nevertheless, most clinical studies conclude that the triggering effect of sexual activities on acute cardiac events is minimal and can be alleviated through regular physical exercise Cheitlin ; Dahabreh and Paulus ; Muller et al. The premise is that sexual foreplay, stimulation and intercourse require both men and women to engage in stretching and physical movement. Regular physical activities enhance endothelial nitric-oxide synthase eNOS expression and function leading to increased nitric-oxide NO production and thereby vasodilation Dimmeler and Zeiher This process improves the efficiency of the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to body cells and tissues, thus keeping the tissues healthy and strong Butt Although clinical studies represent a step forward in this line of investigation, both the quantity and quality of the research is limited.
Studies to date have failed to demonstrate basic patterns for known populations. The fundamental weaknesses of these studies, which include small, unrepresentative samples, a focus only on younger adults, cross-sectional designs, and lack of control covariates Brody , make causal inference difficult. More importantly, these clinical studies mainly utilize a medical perspective that emphasizes the physical and behavioral traits of sex in the disease development processes, and tend to overlook the social and psychological context in which partnered sex occurs.
Therefore, this line of literature suffers from its intellectual fragmentation and does not provide a theoretical frame to guide empirical analysis and integrate research findings Hammack The life course perspective on social relationships lays a broad theoretical foundation to expect that partnered sexuality holds significant meaning for individuals and functions to shape life context which, in turn, affects health.
This perspective directs attention to both the resources and support that flow from relationships as well as the strain and demands that they carry, all of which constitute key components of the life course Umberson and Montez Involvement in partnered sexuality increases access to social, psychological and behavioral resources.
In terms of behavioral resources, sex is the central activity in a sexual relationship. However, in most cases, especially among older adults, involvement in partnered sexuality goes beyond the physical act of sex to include emotional closeness, availability of a confidant, and the benefits of physical touch Iveniuk et al.
Similar to other types of social relationships like marriage and parenthood, partnered sexuality may promote health via increasing social integration and social and emotional support Burman and Margolin ; Cohen , which are all important resources that promote health Waite and Joyner Intimate relationships, whether sexually active or no longer so, are more likely to provide emotional support to men than to women Erickson ; Kalmijn but women seem to be more sensitive to the quality of the relationship than are men Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system to metabolize glucose and induces the release of stress hormones, specifically catecholamines and cortisol, which, in turn, results in increased blood pressure and heart rate, accelerated breathing, and constriction of blood vessels.
Sexual activity, especially orgasm, also triggers the release of oxytocin, which promotes bonding Magon and Kalra and may help to relieve stress, thus enhancing cardiovascular health. Not only is stress relieved during intercourse and the moment of orgasm, but elevated mood may persist for some time, and have a positive impact on health Exton et al. The physical act of sex may alleviate stress directly in the same way as does any exercise Salmon Sex may also work indirectly through the increased access to coping resources such as emotional support from a sexual relationship, which may alleviate the negative effect of stress.
The efficacy of sexual activity for relieving stress may depend on the quality of the experience, with only satisfying sex reducing stress, in much the same way as only marriages of high quality improve physical health Liu and Waite While partnered sexuality may provide health-promoting resources, it may also constitute a source of emotional and physical strain and demands Walen and Lachman The demands may come from the expectations and social norms related to gender and sexuality.
For example, cultural scripts of masculinity may encourage men to enact their masculinity through sexual activities such as high frequency of sex and high expectation for their sexual performance Carpenter Yet, a sexual relationship that produces high physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction may promote relationship quality and minimize the consequences of strain and demands, thus promoting cardiovascular health.
We move beyond the medical perspective by integrating a social relationship and life course perspective to view partnered sexuality that constitutes the life context of individuals and in turn shapes cardiovascular health.
Given the long standing observation that involvement in social relationships promotes health and that men receive more health benefits from an intimate relationship than do women Liu and Umberson , our general hypothesis is that: Social relationship scholars further distinguish quantitative e. Frequency of partnered sex is a key mechanism through which sexual relationships may produce health outcomes.
Medical researchers have reinforced scientific evidence linking regular physical exercise to various measures of cardiovascular health and emphasize frequency of exercise as a key component to developing cardiovascular fitness of older adults Myers Similar to other forms of physical exercise, having sex frequently may enhance the capacity of the blood vessels to dilate, improve vascular wall function, more efficiently provide oxygen to the muscles and in turn promote cardiovascular health Myers Moreover, moderate frequency of sex may promote intimacy in the relationship and thus overall relationship quality Galinsky and Waite , which has positive effects on health.
However, a high frequency of sex may indicate potential problems of sexual obsessions or unmet sexual need of either partner, or may signal the presence of an extramarital sexual relationship. These may lead to stress and physical exhaustion and thus be detrimental to cardiovascular health Safi et al.
In addition, sexual intercourse per se is physically and biologically demanding and entails moderate stress on the cardiovascular system Safi et al.
Taken together, we hypothesize that both men and women who have moderately frequent sex will have lower cardiovascular risk than those who are sexually inactive Hypothesis 2a , but high frequency of sex will be related to increased cardiovascular risk especially for men Hypothesis 2b. Compared with objective measures of sexual frequency, clinical studies have paid less attention to subjective feelings of sexual well-being in linkages to health Brody In contrast, social relationship scholars have consistently highlighted the importance of relationship quality in shaping health Umberson and Montez Both dimensions of sexual quality are seen as components of relationship satisfaction and stability Galinsky and Waite ; Sprecher , and thus modify the social support and stress processes and shape cardiovascular health.
Because women are more sensitive to the quality of a relationship than are men, they may experience stronger effects of relationship quality on their cardiovascular health than do men Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton ; Liu and Waite ; Zhang and Hayward Taken together, we expect that better sexual quality will be related to lower cardiovascular risk, and this relationship will be stronger for women than for men Hypothesis 3.
Despite limited empirical evidence, especially population-based, several clinical studies have examined how sexuality is affected by heart disease and suggested that the onset of cardiovascular disease is associated with a decline in sexual desire and frequency Jaarsma et al.
For example, Jaarsma and collegaues studied 62 patients with advanced heart failure and found that most patients reported a marked decrease in sexual interest and sexual frequency as well as decreases in the feeling of pleasure or satisfaction they normally experienced from sex after the event of heart failure. Given this literature, we expect that higher cardiovascular risk at one point will be related to both lower frequency and lower quality of sex at a later point for both men and women Hypothesis 4.
A nationally representative probability sample of community-dwelling individuals ages 57—85 was selected from households across the U. African Americans, Latinos, men, and those 75—84 years old were over-sampled. Both in-home interviews and lab tests and assays were conducted. Wave 2 consisted of 2, Wave 1 respondents who were re-interviewed during — Waite, Cagney, et al.
Because our study focuses on partnered sexuality, we exclude 57 respondents who reported having had sex in the past year but were not in a partnered relationship including marriage, cohabitation, and other intimate or sexual relationships at Wave 1.
Thus, our final sample includes 1, men and 1, women who were interviewed in both waves. We start with a basic measure of whether a respondent is sexually active with a partner. Then, we measure sexual frequency based on the question asking respondents how often they had sex with the partner during the last 12 months.
Sexuality scholars distinguish two dimensions of sexual quality: Respondents were asked how physically pleasurable they found their sexual relationship to be. They were also asked in a separate question how emotionally satisfying they found their sexual relationship to be. If the respondent was not sexually active last year, the questions referred to their most recent partnered sexual relationship./p>
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