It’s one of those stereotypes about aging that just won’t go away: sex isn’t – or even shouldn’t be- a big part of older adults’ lives. But you know that nothing could be further from the truth! While your sex life might change as you get older, and there might be new challenges surrounding it, that doesn’t mean that sex can’t still be an important (and fun) part of your life – and you know what? It turns out there’s one more good reason to make regular sex a part of your life (as if you needed one): it could help you live longer. Yep, you read that right – a recent study suggests that having sex can increase your lifespan. So how can sex equal a longer life, and how often do you have to get down to it to reap the benefits?
Forget Laughter, Sex Might Be the Best Medicine
Researchers have been studying the benefits of sex for a long time, and some of their findings are, well, less than surprising. Sex can boost your mood, ease stress, and improve your mental well-being, not to mention strengthen your relationships; anyone who has a healthy sex life can tell you all that, though! But what might be more surprising is what we’ve been finding out more recently about what sex can do for you physically – and we don’t just mean that it’s great exercise (which it is). Some of the more surprising findings about sex and our physical health include that it:
- Boosts your immune system – People who have sex more often have been found to have more of a certain antibody that wards off germs and viruses.
- Lowers your blood pressure
- Reduces risk of heart attack – In one study, men who had sex at least twice a week were half as likely to die of heart disease as men who had sex rarely.
- Lessens pain – Got arthritis? An orgasm can help with that: having one releases a hormone that helps raise your pain threshold.
- Helps you get your much-needed sleep
While all of the above is great news for your health, and can certainly help you live a longer, healthier, happier life, there’s now a more concrete reason to believe that more sex could equal more candles on your birthday cake: a 2017 study that discovered the benefits of sex on your body at the cellular level.
What’s DNA Got to Do With It?
You’re more than likely familiar with chromosomes and the DNA that they are made of, but have you ever heard of telomeres? Before we can get into how sex can increase your lifespan, we’ve got to talk a little bit about these proteins, which live in a cell’s nucleus and act almost like protective “caps” on the ends of your chromosomes. As you age, you begin to lose these protective protein “caps”: each time a cell reproduces, or when it is put under stress, it loses more telomeres, meaning your important chromosomes get shorter and shorter until there’s no protection for your genetic material left. Think of it like this: if your hair had terrible split ends, which were only getting worse as you brushed and pulled at your hair, you’d eventually lose more than just the ends of your hair.
So when it comes to telomeres, size does matter: as our telomeres shorten, more and more cells get damaged and are less able to perform their functions in the body, and shorter telomeres are linked to serious health issues like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, scientists are now speculating that these tiny little proteins and their disappearing act might actually be what triggers the aging process, and that they might even be the culprits behind the inevitable end of our lives. Unfortunately, we can’t just take a drug that reverses this process, because interfering with telomerase, the enzyme that participates in the destruction of telomeres, would dramatically increase the risk of developing cancer.
But that’s where the 2017 study mentioned above comes in: both emotional and physical intimacy might actually be a far more pleasant way to slow the shortening of your telomeres and keep you healthier, longer.
The researchers who conducted the study, University of California San Francisco’s Tomás Cabeza de Baca and his colleagues, started with the idea that social support and good relationships are good for your telomeres, but they wanted to go a step further and check out whether sexual activity had an impact on telomere length and telomerase levels. To that end, the researchers tracked the sex lives of 129 women, asking them to give daily reports on their satisfaction with their relationships, how often they were intimate with their partners, and analyzing samples of their blood to check their cell health.
What they found was surprising. Even after accounting for a number of factors, the only measured factor that seemed to have a consistently positive impact on telomere length was having sex at least once in the previous week! Not even the quality of the women’s relationships seemed to make much of a difference: as long as they were having regular sex, their telomeres tended to be longer.
While these are some pretty exciting findings, scientists aren’t necessarily saying you should run out and have as much sex as possible (although we’re also not saying you shouldn’t…). What they are suggesting is that it’s possible that having sex regularly might have protective benefits for your telomeres because it helps keep stress levels down, as well as stimulates the feel-good hormone oxytocin. They also point out that more frequent sex could indicate that someone is in fulfilling relationship, which is helping to boost their health and slow down the aging process – it’s sort of like the chicken and egg scenario: which came first?
And while this study might not be totally definitive (the researchers even point out that it might be more about correlation than causation), it is the first of its kind to look not just at how relationships can affect the aging process, but how sex specifically can help keep you feeling younger for longer. But the researchers still stress that all sorts of connections with other people can go hand-in-hand with physical intimacy to keep you feeling younger, healthier, and more fulfilled as you age. Just remember, don’t feel like you have to push yourself to have sex everyday! If you have a partner who you enjoy being intimate with, don’t shy away from getting your romance on when the mood strikes: it could keep you both together for longer!