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Aging Well
Sexual Health

Sex Can Boost Brain Power in Older Adults -- and Viewing Cute Animal Images Can Get You in the Mood!

A study done at Coventry University and Oxford in the UK and published in June 2017 in Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological and Social Sciences found that more frequent sexual activity was inked to improved brain function in older adults. Yet as noted by researchers at Florida State University, one of the well-known challenges of marriage is keeping the passion alive after years of partnership even in very happy relationships.

The solution? A study by the Florida team led by James K. McNulty and published in in June 2017 in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that viewing cute animals can help rekindle marital spark. Could this be why Facebook is rife with images and videos of puppies and bunnies and kittens? And we thought we were just procrastinating!

The UK researchers found that people who engaged in more regular sexual activity scored higher on tests that measured their verbal fluency and their ability to visually perceive objects and the spaces between them. A release from Coventry note that the study involved 73 people aged between 50 and 83.

Participants filled in a questionnaire on how often, on average, they had engaged in sexual activity over the past 12 months – whether that was never, monthly or weekly – as well as answering questions about their general health and lifestyle.

The 28 men and 45 women also took part in a standardized test, which is typically used to measure different patterns of brain function in older adults, focusing on attention, memory, fluency, language and visuospatial ability.

This included verbal fluency tests in which participants had 60 seconds to name as many animals as possible, and then to say as many words beginning with F as they could – tests which reflect higher cognitive abilities.

They also took part in tests to determine their visuospatial ability which included copying a complex design and drawing a clock face from memory.

It was these two sets of tests where participants who engaged in weekly sexual activity scored the most highly, with the verbal fluency tests showing the strongest effect.

The results suggested that frequency of sexual activity was not linked to attention, memory or language. In these tests, the participants performed just as well regardless of whether they reported weekly, monthly or no sexual activity.

This study expanded on previous research from 2016, which found that older adults who were sexually active scored higher on cognitive tests than those who were not sexually active.

But this time the research looked more specifically at the impact of the frequency of sexual activity (i.e. does it make a difference how often you engage in sexual activity) and also used a broader range of tests to investigate different areas of cognitive function.

The academics say further research could look at how biological elements, such as dopamine and oxytocin, could influence the relationship between sexual activity and brain function to give a fuller explanation of their findings.

The UK release quotes lead researcher Dr Hayley Wright, from Coventry University’s Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement, as saying, “We can only speculate whether this is driven by social or physical elements – but an area we would like to research further is the biological mechanisms that may influence this.

“Every time we do another piece of research we are getting a little bit closer to understanding why this association exists at all, what the underlying mechanisms are, and whether there is a ’cause and effect’ relationship between sexual activity and cognitive function in older people.

“People don’t like to think that older people have sex – but we need to challenge this conception at a societal level and look at what impact sexual activity can have on those aged 50 and over, beyond the known effects on sexual health and general wellbeing.”

As for the Florida research about those cute animals boosting desire, McNulty and colleagues designed their intervention using evaluative conditioning: Images of a spouse were repeatedly paired with very positive words or images such as puppies and bunnies. In theory, the positive feelings elicited by the positive images and words would become automatically associated with images of the spouse after practice.

A release from FSU quotes McNulty assaying, “I was actually a little surprised that it worked. All the theory I reviewed on evaluative conditioning suggested it should, but existing theories of relationships, and just the idea that something so simple and unrelated to marriage could affect how people feel about their marriage, made me skeptical.”

It’s important to note that McNulty and colleagues are not arguing that behavior in a relationship is irrelevant to marital satisfaction. They note that interactions between spouses are actually the most important factor for setting automatic associations.

However, the new findings suggest that a brief intervention focused on automatic attitudes could be useful as one aspect of marriage counseling or as a resource for couples in difficult long-distance situations, such as soldiers.

“The research was actually prompted by a grant from the Department of Defense – I was asked to conceptualize and test a brief way to help married couples cope with the stress of separation and deployment,” McNulty said. “We would really like to develop a procedure that could help soldiers and other people in situations that are challenging for relationships.”