Posted on Aug 08, 2023, 3 p.m.
Low sexual satisfaction during middle age could be a factor for future cognitive decline according to recent research from Penn State published in the journal Gerontologist. Findings point to a novel risk factor for cognitive decline in what is thought to be the first longitudinal study to track sexual satisfaction in tandem with sexual health and cognition.
According to the researchers, associations were tracked between erectile function, sexual satisfaction, and cognition from 818 men between the ages of 56-68 years old who participated in the VETSA ongoing study of risk and protective factors for cognitive and brain aging, finding that declines in sexual satisfaction and erectile function were correlated with future memory loss.
“What was unique about our approach is that we measured memory function and sexual function at each point in the longitudinal study, so we could look at how they changed together over time,” said Martin Sliwinski, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State and co-author on the study. “What we found connects to what scientists are beginning to understand about the link between life satisfaction and cognitive performance.”
The researchers analyze relationships between physical changes and psychological changes to determine how they relate to cognition, examining shifts beginning in middle age because this represented a transitional period where decline in erectile function, cognition, and sexual satisfaction begin to emerge. Conducting neuropsychological testing the cognitive changes of the participants were examined over the 12-year span, adjusting for cognitive ability in young adulthood. Erectile function and sexual satisfaction were measured using the International Index of Erectile Function assessment for male sexual health.
“Scientists have found that if you have low satisfaction generally, you are at a higher risk for health problems like dementia, Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular disease and other stress-related issues that can lead to cognitive decline,” he said. “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.”
While a strong correlation between three health factors was discovered, the researchers can only speculate on the cause. Decreases in erectile function and sexual satisfaction were associated with memory decline, which points to a connection between physical and psychological health.
“Research on sexual health has historically focused on quantifiable facets of sexuality like number of sexual partners or frequency of sexual activity,” said Riki Slayday, a doctoral candidate at Penn State and co-lead author on the study. “What we were interested in is the perception of that activity, how someone feels about their sex life, and how that influences cognitive function, because multiple people could be in the same situation physically but experience completely different levels of satisfaction.”
“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,” Slayday said. “These associations survived adjustment for demographic and health factors, which tells us there is a clear connection between our sex lives and our cognition.”
"When we think about aging, we tend to neglect the importance of a sexual health," said Tyler Bell, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California San Diego and co-lead author on the study. "Our results show that neglecting aspects of sexual health, especially erectile function, can have harmful impacts on our memory."
“We already have a pill for treating erectile dysfunction. What we don’t have is an effective treatment for memory loss,” Sliwinski said. “Instead of the conversation being about treating ED, we should see that as a leading indicator for other health problems and also focus on improving sexual satisfaction and overall well-being, not just treating the symptom.”
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