Examining the Health Benefits of Sex, on the Brain

By ACSH Staff — Feb 24, 2016
According to a recent study examining a possible link between sex and cognitive behavior, while enjoyable, sex doesn't necessarily help prevent mental deterioration. "That s a lovely idea but it s not as simple as that," said one researcher. "Dementia is a complex issue."
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Some religions threaten damnation for it. And some parents would (metaphorically) kill their young teenagers for engaging in it. But sex, especially among older people, has long been associated with many physical health benefits, such as lower blood pressure and a decreased risk of heart attacks. But in exploring whether its health benefits extend to cognitive function, a recent study found that while enjoyable, sex doesn't necessarily prevent mental deterioration.

Past studies have found that people in good mental health generally have more sex than people in cognitive decline, such as those suffering dementia. Could this indicate that more sexually-active people think clearer and are at lower risk of dementia? This led British researchers Hayley Wright and Rebecca Jenks to seek out possible links between sex and one's thought process.

The biggest question we have got is the question of causality," Dr. Wright said. "We have found a correlation between two variables." But that's not the whole story.

The research team examined answers given on the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a nationally representative panel survey of adults over age 50. The survey asked participants whether they'd had sex within the last 12 months. The survey also asked about the participants' age, wealth and physical activity, while gathering other information.

Surveyors then administered cognitive tests. First, participants took a recall test, wherein they attempted to recall a list of 10 words both immediately and after a few minutes. Second, they attempted to fill in the missing number in a number sequence.

After examining the answers of 6,833 men and women between ages 50 and 89, Wright and Jenks reached a few conclusions. First, the team found that sexually-active men and women had significantly higher test scores than their sexually-inactive counterparts. In addition, the sexually active were more likely to be better educated, younger and wealthier. However, the researchers did not attribute engaging in sex, by itself, as a way of warding off dementia.

The possibility of protecting oneself from dementia by having sex -- that s a lovely idea but it s not as simple as that," said Dr. Wright. "Dementia is a complex issue. There would need to be much more research undertaken.

The study also found gender-specific differences. The survey answers showed that sexually-active older men scored higher on both tests than sexually-active older women. The study attributes these gender differences to sex differences in brain development and structure.

According to the study, "physiological correlates of sexual activity (eg. testosterone, oxytocin) could have different effects on the brain and hence cognitive function in men and women."