According to a recent study led by Penn State researchers, low sexual satisfaction in middle age may be a warning sign of future cognitive decline.
The study, which followed the relationships between erectile function, sexual satisfaction, and cognition in hundreds of men aged 56 to 68, discovered that losses in sexual satisfaction and erectile performance were associated with future memory loss.
The study, published in the journal Gerontologist, is the first to follow sexual satisfaction alongside sexual health and cognition through time, and its findings indicate a potential new risk factor for cognitive decline.
Martin Sliwinski, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State and co-author on the study, said, “What was unique about our approach is that we measured memory function and sexual function at each point in the longitudinal study, so we could look at how they changed together over time, What we found connects to what scientists are beginning to understand about the link between life satisfaction and cognitive performance.”
The new study examined the relationship between physical changes like microvascular alterations affecting penile function and psychological changes like poorer sexual satisfaction to see how they relate to cognition.
They examined the changes beginning in middle age because that is when declines in erectile function, cognition, and sexual satisfaction began to occur.
While the researchers observed a high association between the three health indicators, Sliwinski highlighted that they could only hypothesize the cause.
He said. “Scientists have found that if you have low satisfaction generally, you are at a higher risk for health problems like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and other stress-related issues that can lead to cognitive decline; improvements in sexual satisfaction may spark improvement in memory function. We tell people they should get more exercise and eat better foods. We’re showing that sexual satisfaction is important for our health and general quality of life.”
The survey data from 818 males who participated in the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging were used. They determined participants’ cognitive changes throughout 12 years from age 56 to 68, correcting for people’s cognitive performance in young adulthood using neuropsychological assessments such as memory and processing speed tests.
To assess erectile function and sexual satisfaction, the International Index of Erectile Function, a self-reported assessment for male sexual health, was utilized. The researchers then developed a statistical model to understand how the three variables changed as people aged.
Riki Slayday, a doctoral candidate at Penn State and lead author on the study, said, “Research on sexual health has historically focused on quantifiable facets of sexuality like the number of sexual partners or frequency of sexual activity; what we were interested in is the perception of that activity, how someone feels about their sex life, and how that influences cognitive function because multiple people could be in the same situation physically but experience completely different levels of satisfaction.”
The study discovered that decreases in erectile function and sexual satisfaction were linked to memory deterioration, implying a link between psychological and physical health.
Slayday said, “When we mapped the relationship over time, we found increases or decreases in erectile function and sexual satisfaction were associated with concurrent increases or decreases in cognitive function; these associations survived adjustment for demographic and health factors, which tells us there is a clear connection between our sex lives and our cognition.”
Increases or reductions in erectile function and sexual pleasure were linked to concurrent increases or decreased cognitive function, even after controlling for demographic and health characteristics.
Previously, researchers discovered a relationship between microvascular changes and changes in erectile function over time. Because Viagra’s primary ingredient (Sildenafil) was initially intended to treat cardiovascular disorders, the relationship between vascular health and erectile function is well established.
Increasing the testing and monitoring of erectile function as a crucial marker of health may aid in identifying persons at risk of cognitive impairment before age 70. Over the next 30 years, the older adult population in the United States is predicted to double, implying that twice as many people will hit their 60s and experience reductions in erectile function and sexual satisfaction.
Sliwinski said, “We already have a pill for treating erectile dysfunction. We don’t have an effective treatment for memory loss; instead of the conversation being about treating ED, we should see that as a leading indicator for other health problems and focus on improving sexual satisfaction and overall well-being, not just treating the symptom.”
The National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health funded the study.