Benefits of sex

Sex isn’t just enjoyable, it also contributes to our quality of life. Intimacy is important to our physical and mental health and wellbeing, and there are many benefits to being sexually active. Sex may:

  • release chemicals that help you feel happy
  • strengthen the immune system
  • relieve stress
  • aid relaxation and sleep
  • relieve pain
  • improve cognitive function.

Enjoying your sex life

Communication is at the heart of good sex. Whether it’s a new relationship or you’ve been together for many years, it’s important to keep talking and listening to your partner about what you both want and need. Sex doesn’t have to be about intercourse – showing affection and appreciation, kissing, touching and being close are all just as important. You need to look after this aspect of your relationship.

Sex is much, much more than penetrative intercourse and I cherish every moment with my dear husband, whose life has been saved by surgery for prostate cancer but who suffers side effects. A hug and a kiss when I know he could so easily not be here is beyond price.

At times you may want sex more or less often than your partner or you may want different things. If you’re a carer, you may worry that you’re being demanding by wanting to have sex. If you’re being cared for, you may lose confidence and self-esteem. Even something simple, like moving to separate beds, can lead to a lack of closeness.

Talk to your partner and reassure them. If they get upset, give them time and come back to the conversation later. There are many different forms of intimacy you could explore that could be satisfying.

It can be very stressful having sex with a new partner. Only do what you feel comfortable with and tell your new partner about your anxieties if you feel nervous. They probably feel the same way and open communication from the start can lead to a better sex life in the long run.

There’s no reason why you can’t be more adventurous in later life and try new things or experiment. For some people that may include having a same sex relationship for the first time. If you need support and advice, contact Stonewall.

Your body and sex

Ageing brings changes to our bodies but any decline in sexual response happens extremely gradually, giving you time to adjust. Sexual problems are not an inevitable part of ageing. Your sex life may not be as intense as when you were younger but it can be just as satisfying.

Changes to your appearance, such as hair loss or weight gain, may affect your confidence and self-esteem. Changes in your body and hormones may also affect your desire. Try to accept and adapt to the changes and try different ways to enjoy intimacy and sex.

Men may experience reduced sensitivity or have difficulty getting or maintaining an erection. This can lead to a loss of confidence and unwillingness to try again or performance anxiety. If this happens, seek help from your GP. There are treatments available, for example medication such as Viagra.

For women, the effects of the menopause can last for years, including hot flushes, night sweats, disturbed sleep and low mood. A decline in oestrogen can lead to vaginal dryness, which can cause pain or difficulty when having sex - using a lubricant may help. You may experience a lower sex drive, but this is often temporary.

If you’re experiencing difficulties, talk to your partner. Sometimes a physical problem can be made worse by anxiety. By sharing your worries you can deal with problems together. You could also seek help from your GP. You can find more information about some common problems on the Relate website.

Sexual health

It’s important to practise safe sex with a new partner. Pregnancy may no longer be a concern, but you can still get or pass sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Condoms are the only method of contraception that can help protect against STIs, which include genital warts, chlamydia and HIV.

It’s a good idea to know about symptoms and what to look out for. You can find more information about sexual health on the NHS website.

You can get confidential help and advice from your GP or, if you prefer, at a genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic. The sexual health charity FPA can also give information and they have a helpline.

Sex and ill health

Having an illness is one of the most common reasons people give for ending sexual activity. This may be because of:

  • worry about the risks
  • difficult or painful intercourse
  • a loss of confidence and feeling unattractive
  • a reduction in sexual desire
  • the effect of medication – lots of drugs can affect sexual function.

Issues relating to illness may be treatable so talk to your GP. You may find it difficult to ask for help but many sexual difficulties can be overcome by relatively simple advice. Your GP could help you by:

  • helping you to identify different positions
  • advising you how long to wait before you can resume intercourse after a heart attack or surgery
  • changing the timing or dose of your medication
  • dealing with fears of causing pain if your partner has undergone surgery.

If the problem is physical, you could ask them for a referral to a specialist, such as a gynaecologist or urologist.

If psychological factors are contributing to a sexual problem, you could get specialist help from Relate. You can also find details of therapists from the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists.

There are many charities and other organisations that can advise you on how to cope with sex when you’re living with a specific condition, for example:

When it comes to treating erectile dysfunction, a common side effect following prostate cancer treatment, early support and treatment is vital.

John Robertson, Specialist Nurse, Prostate Cancer UK

Sex and dementia

A diagnosis of dementia doesn’t mean that your sex life has to end. People with dementia often have sexual needs, just like everyone else, and maintaining or developing a sexual relationship can enhance your wellbeing.

Your sexual relationship may change in unpredictable ways and there may be problems in relation to sexual expression and behaviour – for example, you may lose your ability to judge what’s appropriate and what isn’t. It’s also important that there is always consent and some people with dementia may not have the mental capacity to give this consent. The Alzheimer’s Society has a useful guide to sex and intimate relationships.

If you live in a care home, it doesn’t necessarily mean an end to your sex life but care staff do need to balance your right to privacy with a need for care and observation. Talk to the manager and find out what their policy on sex and intimacy is, and how you can be given privacy and opportunities to be close, for example ‘do not disturb’ signs for doors or the option of a double bed where possible. If you’re in a same-sex relationship you should be given the same rights.

Next steps

You can find more information about sex in later life on the NHS website nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodsex/Pages/Oldersex.

You can also find sexual health information and support services in your area at nhs.uk/Service-Search

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