A bad sex life might predict memory problems in your later years. A recent study has found that middle-aged men who reported decreasing sexual satisfaction and erectile function as they got older also tended to experience greater cognitive decline at the same time. The findings suggest that our sexual health is closely tied to our brain health, though more research is needed to better understand this link, the study authors say.
Past studies have found a connection between sexual and cognitive function, including in older adults. But much of this research has relied on studying people at singular points in their life. In this new study, led by scientists at Penn State University, the team had access to data that allowed them to follow people over time.
Specifically, they analyzed data from hundreds of older men enrolled in the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging (VETSA), an ongoing study that’s trying to pin down the genetic and environmental factors that affect people’s aging brains. More than 800 men were included in the team’s analysis, with an average age of 56 at the start of the study. These men answered questions about their lives and had their cognition and memory tested across three waves of the study over a 12-year period.
Men’s self-reported sexual satisfaction at the start of the study wasn’t linked to their initial cognitive function, the researchers found. But men whose sex lives began to decline over the years often experienced memory decline as well. Men who reported erectile dysfunction also tended to have worse cognitive function at the beginning and throughout the study.
“When we mapped the relationship over time, we found increases or decreases in erectile function and sexual satisfaction were associated with concurrent increases or decreases in cognitive function,” said co-lead author Riki Slayday, a doctoral candidate at Penn State, in a statement released by the university. “These associations survived adjustment for demographic and health factors, which tells us there is a clear connection between our sex lives and our cognition.”
The team’s results were published in the latest issue of the journal Gerontologist.
Longitudinal studies are better than similar types of research at showing a genuine association between any two factors—in this case, sexual and brain health. This study alone still can’t tell us the direction of this relationship, though, meaning whether one causes the other or if both are influenced by another unaccounted factor. But the authors do have some theories. Men with worsening sex lives can experience greater stress as a result, which could then affect their cognitive health, for instance. Subtle damaging changes in our body’s circulation are also known to raise the risk of erectile dysfunction in men and could plausibly harm our brains as well.
The authors say their findings at the very least indicate that older men’s declining sexual health can be an early warning sign of memory problems. Ideally, this might also mean that people can help keep their brains sharp by proactively addressing issues with their sex life.
“Improvements in sexual satisfaction may actually spark improvement in memory function. We tell people they should get more exercise and eat better foods. We’re showing that sexual satisfaction also has importance for our health and general quality of life,” study author Martin Sliwinski, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, said in a statement.
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