Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitive function in older age

Age Ageing. 2016 Mar;45(2):313-7. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afv197. Epub 2016 Jan 28.


Background: the relationship between cognition and sexual activity in healthy older adults is under-researched. A limited amount of research in this area has shown that sexual activity is associated with better cognition in older men. The current study explores the possible mediating factors in this association in men and women, and attempts to provide an explanation in terms of physiological influences on cognitive function.

Methods: using newly available data from Wave 6 of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, the current study explored associations between sexual activity and cognition in adults aged 50-89 (n = 6,833). Two different tests of cognitive function were analysed: number sequencing, which broadly relates to executive function, and word recall, which broadly relates to memory.

Results: after adjusting for age, education, wealth, physical activity, depression, cohabiting, self-rated health, loneliness and quality of life, there were significant associations between sexual activity and number sequencing and recall in men. However, in women there was a significant association between sexual activity and recall, but not number sequencing.

Conclusions: possible mediators of these associations (e.g. neurotransmitters) are discussed. The cross-sectional nature of the analysis is limiting, but provides a promising avenue for future explorations and longitudinal studies. The findings have implications for the promotion of sexual counselling in healthcare settings, where maintaining a healthy sex life in older age could be instrumental in improving cognitive function and well-being.

Keywords: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA); ageing; cognition; gender differences; older people; sexual activity.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • England
  • Executive Function
  • Female
  • Geriatric Assessment / methods
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexual Behavior*