Women Adapt to Changes in Sexual Function During Midlife

Happy couple
Happy couple
Many women are able to adapt to the negative changes in sexual function that they experience as they age.

Although women have often reported declines in sexual function during midlife, some have experienced positive effects by finding ways to cope with these negative changes as they age, according to study results presented at the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) 2016 Annual Meeting.

Holly N. Thomas, MD, MS, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues reviewed 20 interviews and 3 focus groups to gather qualitative data from  sexually active women aged 40 to 65 years (n=39; mean age: 58 years) to gauge how they viewed changes in sexual function and how they were coping with these changes over time. Of the participants, 13% were premenopausal, 44% were perimenopausal, and 28% were unsure of their menopausal status.

Regarding declining sexual function, the most common complaints included decreased frequency of sex, lower libido, vaginal dryness, and difficulty reaching orgasm, according to the researchers. However, more women blamed psychosocial factors, such as family and career, than biological changes, such as menopause. Partner issues, including partner health problems, relationship discord, and partner sexual dysfunction, were also viewed as main problems for some women, with several believing they had higher libidos than their male partners.

Among those who experienced positive changes in sexual function, women often reported greater sexual satisfaction despite a decline in frequency of sex. Increased self-confidence and self-knowledge as well as improved communication skills as they aged were likely responsible for these positive changes, the women noted.

The researchers also evaluated how women responded to the negative effects of sexual function during midlife. Results showed that a small proportion of women were indifferent to the changes, a moderate proportion experienced distress, and a large proportion reported adaptation, including the use of vaginal lubricants, lengthening foreplay, incorporating other types of sex, trying other sexual positions, increased masturbation, and encouraging use of erectile dysfunction treatments in their partners. Some women also increased their satisfaction with sex by focusing on emotional intimacy as opposed to the physical aspects.

“One of the most enlightening findings of this study was the large number of women who had successfully adapted to any negative changes by modifying their expectations regarding sexual activity, putting more emphasis on the emotional and intimacy aspects of sex, or adapting the sex acts themselves,” Dr Thomas said in a press release.

Disclosures: This study was sponsored by the Agency on Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Dr Thomas reports no conflicts of interest.

For more coverage of NAMS 2016, click here.

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  1. Thomas HN, Hamm M, Hess R, Borrero S, Thurston RC. Abstract S-13. Changes in sexual function among midlife women: “I’m older… and I’m wiser.” Presented at: North American Menopause Society 2016 Annual Meeting; October 5-8, 2016; Orlando, FL.
  2. New study shows how women adapt to changes in sexual function with age [press release]. Cleveland, OH: North American Menopause Society Press Room; September 19, 2016. http://www.menopause.org/docs/default-source/2016-docs/changes-in-sexual-function-9-12-km.pdf. Accessed October 6, 2016.