Sexual Side Effects of Aging
Interview with Lyra Heller, MA
Our bodies change as we age—as hard as we might fight it. For women who want to maintain a sexually active life with a partner, that may mean accommodating some physical changes. We talked to Lyra Heller, MA to learn her advice on what we can do in order to keep that libido alive.
How does menopause affect sex?
This is a complex question because women’s sexuality is complex. Part of your experience around sexuality and your sexual response is governed by changing hormones. The major impact centers on what menopause means to you, what it symbolizes, your relationship with your partner, and your general health and sense of wellbeing.
How do changing hormones affect sex?
Menopause is a process. It’s a major life transition marked by declines in sex hormones that signal the end of your reproductive years. Perimenopause is the first phase. It can begin sometime in your 40s and may extend into your mid-50s. The symptoms are related to fluctuating hormone levels that cause changes in menstrual cycle quality and frequency, hot flashes, spontaneous sweats leading to poor sleep quality, anxiety, and moodiness. You may notice some weight gain.
Desire to engage in sex can be the last thing on your mind because you are tired, uncomfortable, possibly self-conscious. As estrogen levels continue to decline, vaginal dryness, which loosely translates as you don’t lubricate as well when you’re sexually aroused, may become an issue. This can result in painful intercourse, and it can produce a sense of negativity as you approach sex, because it hurts. Part of the menopausal experience is the vaginal lining tends to thin, and sometimes the walls of your vagina can narrow, so intercourse in general can be hurtful.
How do your feelings and thoughts about menopausal changes affect sex?
Christiane Northrup, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing says, “Thoughts are an important part of your inner wisdom, and they are very powerful. A thought held long enough and repeated often enough becomes a belief. A belief then becomes your biology. ”1
Menopause is a time of physical transformation that encompasses the aging process. Desiring an active sex life at times requires engaging in difficult and rewarding conversations with yourself and your partner because your body may not perform as before. Sounds simple enough, but it can be challenging to communicate “what turns you on.” Yet this may become a core issue. Other considerations that dampen sexual desire are:
- Do you have “passion for life”?
- Is your partner relationship affectionate, respectful, and intimate?
- How do you feel about your body as it changes, and does it affect your sexual availability?
- Are issues of past mental, emotional, or sexual abuse impacting your desire for sexual intimacy?
- How stressed are you—by work, family, or finances?
To move beyond the influence that hormones have on how we feel and look, to sustain and nourish your libido and satisfy your need for physical touch can require courage and, maybe, assistance from an experienced counselor.
Aging seems to come with increased aches and pains, whether from arthritis or just general physical deterioration. How can pain affect a healthy sex life?
Pain hurts a healthy sex life! You don’t want to have sex when you hurt. So what happens is, you decide to control the pain. And there are pain medications that will actually reduce your desire to have sex. In fact, a lot of medications can cause sexual problems. Plus, drug combinations and mixtures of prescription with over-the-counter (OTC) medications are all capable of inducing disinterest in sex.
This is where lifestyle becomes really important. If you’re suffering from a chronic health condition, the trajectory of seeking relief should start with a self-focused approach in partnership with your healthcare practitioner. Some of the major issues requiring medications that might affect your sex life can be elevated blood pressure, depression, anxiety, gut problems, and others2—these are all things that can in some instances also be helped by diet and lifestyle and becoming more physically active. With minor health concerns, a healthcare practitioner can provide guidance on what lifestyle modifications may help. Think in terms of being more proactive in how you approach your food choices, how you want to deal with the excess burden of weight, how you want to deal with blood pressure, adrenal function, and elevated blood fats—these are all capable of being modified by a healthy lifestyle.
If you have had a heart attack or have coronary artery disease, do you need to be concerned with continuing normal sexual activities?
Typically there is no concern as long as there is doctor oversight. If you experience shortness of breath, can’t walk very far, have poorly controlled blood pressure, those kinds of things are going to affect sexual vitality. That said, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for women.3 It is important to appreciate your heart disease risk may go unrecognized even though knowledge about gender differences grows.4
New research suggests that women experiencing hot flashes before age 42 may have an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease when compared to women with late onset vasomotor symptoms (older than 42).5 So heart disease is not restricted to women over 65. A baby aspirin a day may not be enough protection.6
Take your heart health seriously. If you are under the age of 65, and especially if you have a family history of heart disease, pay close attention to heart disease risk factors. The risk factors for heart disease are the same as for premature estrogen decline associated with early perimenopause: smoking, physical inactivity, overweight, standard American diet.7
Be proactive. Talk with your doctor.
Are there any options out there that can help with libido?
Experiencing perimenopause and libido is different from experiencing postmenopause and libido. Perimenopause is a rollercoaster ride of fluctuating hormones. Hot flashes and night sweats reduce your sleep. With the exception of some women whose sex drive may increase during perimenopause, you’re tired or irritable or anxious. If you’re depressed, it may worsen. You may feel old and ugly. As the extreme symptoms subside, if your libido is still hovering around zero, see a doctor to discuss possible interventions.
There are several noteworthy methods: vaginal lubricants, moisturizers, and topical hormones.
Water-based vaginal lubricants have a short-term effect on dryness. Vaginal moisturizers differ in that they have a longer-term effect and are prescribed on a regular basis—daily or every 2–3 days, depending on the extent of the dryness. Hyaluronic acid vaginal gel may improve symptoms of vaginal dryness, comparable with the effect of topical estrogen therapy. Both are recommended to reduce friction contributing to painful intercourse.
Low-dose vaginal topical estriol, a weak estrogen, is an effective way to kindle sexual desire in some women and reduce vaginal dryness. The effect is different from oral hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Topical estriol seems to exert local as opposed to systemic effects. There are other topical hormones available that your doctor can prescribe, as well.
If want to be sexually active throughout life, you can. It is a choice—a healthy, rewarding choice. Libido can be nourished. Discovering your capacity for creativity, curiosity, and experimentation is critical to being “turned on.” Grappling with the physical changes of menopause stimulates the need to explore your beliefs and feelings about what is means to be sexually intimate as we age. This can involve venturing into uncharted waters on the adventure of a lifetime.
This content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare professional for advice on medical issues.
- Northrup C. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing. Bantam. 2010.
- AARP. https://www.aarp.org/health/drugs-supplements/info-04-2012/medications-that-can-cause-sexual-dysfunction.html. Accessed February 13, 2019.
- CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/women/lcod/2015/index.htm. Accessed February 13, 2019.
- Westerman S et al. ClinSci (Lond). 2016;130(8):551-563.
- Pallarito K. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/menopause/news/20160915/early-menopause-linked-to-higher-heart-disease-death-risks#1. Accessed February 13, 2019.
- Thurston RC et al. Menopause. 2017;24(2):126-132.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-disease/art-20046167. Accessed January 30, 2019.
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