The Silent Issue of Sexual Health

Older woman wearing a black negligee being embraced from by an older man

It’s no secret that as we age, our health concerns begin to change. Regular check-ups typically focus on issues like mobility, diet, medication, and chronic conditions, which are undoubtedly crucial for maintaining a healthy life after 60. However, there’s a significant aspect of older adults’ health that often goes unmentioned: sexual health.

During a routine check-up, a 60-year-old patient might be asked about falls, sleep patterns, and diet, but discussions about sexual activity are notably absent. This omission persists despite the fact that sexual health remains an important part of life for many older adults. According to a National Poll on Healthy Aging, 40% of adults between 65 and 80 years old report being sexually active, and over half consider sex important to their quality of life.

Despite this, sexual health often flies under the radar in medical conversations, particularly due to misconceptions among healthcare providers. Many professionals assume that older adults are not sexually active or interested, which couldn’t be further from the truth. This oversight can lead to serious health implications, especially given the sharp rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among this demographic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights a startling increase in STI cases among those 55 and older, with cases of gonorrhea growing about 600 percent since 2010, and syphilis cases up nearly 700 percent. Factors contributing to this surge include rising divorce rates, the use of dating apps, and a general lack of condom use, as many older adults associate condoms solely with pregnancy prevention rather than STI protection.

Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted approach. Education and open discussion are at the forefront. Mary Susan Fulghum, a retired OB/GYN, has taken it upon herself to educate older adults, particularly women, about the rising rates of STIs. She regularly speaks at community gatherings to dispel myths and encourage discussions about sexual health, emphasizing that it’s okay—and necessary—to talk to doctors about sex.

Healthcare providers also need to adjust their approach. They must overcome their discomfort and ensure they are discussing and testing for STIs as part of routine check-ups. Providers could benefit from additional training on how to initiate conversations about sexual health with older adults, or they might defer to colleagues who are more comfortable with the topic.

Moreover, older adults themselves must be proactive. They should not shy away from discussing their sexual health with their doctors or new partners. Such conversations are essential for assessing risks and ensuring safe practices. For example, asking a new partner about their STI status or when they were last tested can significantly mitigate health risks.

To further aid in this effort, there should be an increase in accessible educational resources about STIs and prevention methods targeted at older adults. These resources should be readily available in senior centers, retirement communities, and doctors’ offices.

As the dynamics of aging evolve, it’s vital to recognize that sexual health remains a significant aspect of overall well-being for older adults. Ignoring this issue does not make it disappear. Instead, by encouraging open discussions, enhancing provider education, and empowering older adults to speak up, we can ensure that aging remains a journey marked not only by dignity but also by a healthy, fulfilling sexual life.