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Sexual expression and cognitive function: gender-divergent associations in older adults

Wright, Hayley and Jenks, Rebecca A and Lee, David M (2019) Sexual expression and cognitive function: gender-divergent associations in older adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49. pp. 941-951. ISSN 1573-2800 (In Press)

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Abstract

Prior research demonstrates a positive association between sexual activity and cognitive function in later life. However, the relationship between the type of sexual activity and cognitive function in older adulthood remains unclear. This study explores the associations between the frequency of engaging in different types of sexual activities (intercourse, masturbation, and kissing/petting/fondling) and cognitive function in older women and men. Using data from Wave 6 of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), 1915 women and 2195 men (age range 50-89 years; n = 4110) reporting any type of sexual activity over the past 12 months, were included in the study. Multiple regression controlling for age, education, satisfaction with sex life, cohabiting, wealth, general health, physical activity, depression and loneliness, was used to explore the associations between the frequency of engagement in intercourse, masturbation and kissing/petting/fondling, and two measures of cognitive function; word recall and number sequencing. For women, masturbation was linked to better word recall (p = .008), whilst for men, kissing/petting/fondling was associated with better number sequencing (p = .035). In women (p = .016) and men (p = .018), dissatisfaction with sex life was associated with better number sequencing. The results point to gendered links between sexual activity and cognitive function. These gender-related divergences may reflect differences in biological/neurological mechanisms, or in cognitive lifestyle factors that could influence cognitive reserve in later life. This novel study underscores the need to delineate the underlying mechanisms of the association between sex and cognition in men and women.

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