SOURCES: Holly Thomas, M.D., M.S., assistant professor, medicine, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; Lynnette Leidy Sievert, Ph.D, board member, North American Menopause Society, and professor, department of anthropology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; July/August 2015, Annals of Family Medicine
MONDAY, July 20, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly six in 10 women over the age of 60 who are in committed relationships are sexually active, new research shows.
"I wasn't necessarily surprised by the proportion of older women who are sexually active, but maybe others might be," said study author Dr. Holly Thomas, an assistant professor of medicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"People assume as women get older, they automatically become sexually inactive and sex is not as important to them," she added, "which isn't necessarily the case."
The study, analyzing more than 2,100 U.S. women ranging in age from 28 to 84, consisted mostly of women in their 50s and 60s. It found that women in their 60s and 70s had sexual satisfaction levels similar to women in their 30s and 40s.
The research is published in the July/August issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.
According to U.S. Census figures, the percentage of the American population aged 65 and older rose from 4.1 percent in 1900 to 13 percent in 2010, and it's projected to reach nearly 21 percent by 2050. Research has increasingly focused on various aspects of this growing population, and the new findings are consistent with prior research focusing on older women's sexual activity levels, Thomas said.
Expanding on regional research completed several years ago, Thomas and her team focused on a national sample of women who answered an array of questions about sexuality in a questionnaire. They found that 62 percent of respondents reported being sexually active in the previous six months.
Of those aged 60 and older with a committed partner, 59 percent were sexually active. Those romantically partnered were eight times more likely to be sexually active than those without a partner, but 13 percent of sexually active women did not have a steady romantic partner.
Thomas said the results suggest that for women, being connected to one person is more important than having sex for the sake of sex.
"It seems for a lot of women in this age group, whether they have a romantic partner is a big contributor to whether they're sexually active," she said. "Also, we assume that sex goes downhill as we get older, but these findings suggest women are maintaining sexual satisfaction as they get older."
However, since 13 percent of sexually active respondents were not in committed relationships, Thomas noted that "we shouldn't look at a woman who's not married and 60, and assume she's not sexually active."
Lynnette Leidy Sievert, a board member of the North American Menopause Society, praised the new research for continuing to spotlight sexual activity among older women.
"It has to be publicized every couple of years to counteract the stereotype that women over a certain age don't enjoy or want sexual activity," said Leidy Sievert, who is also a professor of anthropology at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "I think we just have to keep putting it out there, and I think these studies are important to say that women remain sexually active."
The results also indicated that among women who were sexually active, age wasn't related to higher sexual satisfaction. Instead, sexual satisfaction was linked to higher satisfaction with their relationship, better communication and prioritizing the importance of sex.
"It's good to see that menopause is not nearly as important [to sexual satisfaction] as their relationship with the person they're having sex with," Leidy Sievert said, "because menopause is blamed for so many things."
Thomas said she hopes physicians will use the information to be more proactive in asking older female patients about sexual activity.
"It's something doctors should be doing," she said. "A lot of women actually want to talk about sex with their doctor but may feel they can't. But if physicians are aware that a lot of these women are sexually active and interested in maintaining a healthy sex life, they can bring it up."
The U.S. National Women's Health Network offers strategies on staying sexually active after 60.