Strained intimate relationships can lead to impaired cognition over time.
A study published earlier this year connected low sexual satisfaction in middle age and eventual cognitive decline. The study, led by Penn State researchers and published in a recent issue of the journal Gerontologist, remains the first to focus on the reciprocal relationship between sexual satisfaction, sexual health, and cognition, and the findings uncover a potential new risk factor for cognitive decline in old age.
Martin Sliwinski, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State and co-author on the study, remarks on the distinct nature of the study.
“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,” he said. “What we found connects to what scientists are beginning to understand about the link between life satisfaction and cognitive performance.”
Researchers isolated middle age as a starting point for shifts in sexual satisfaction, as it is a time representative of a transition and emergence of declining erectile function, cognition, and overall sexual satisfaction. The study investigated the relationship between physical and physiological changes to determine their relation to cognition. Some physical changes they focused on were microvascular changes within erectile function, and one of the main physiological changes they highlighted was lower sexual satisfaction.
Sliwinski notes the study’s limits, as there is no definitive link between cognition, physical function, and satisfaction, but rather, a strong correlation. As such, the researchers can only speculate about the cause of the correlation. Still, this has massive implications for cognitive function, sexual health, and satisfaction in old age.
“Improvements in sexual satisfaction may actually spark improvement in memory function. We tell people they should get more exercise and eat better foods. We’re showing that sexual satisfaction also has importance for our health and general quality of life,” he said.
Survey data was used from 818 male participants of the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging (VETSA), an ongoing study of risk and protective factors for cognitive aging. The VETSA project is funded by the National Institute on Aging and was founded in 2002 by William Kremen, Carol Franz, and Michael Lyons, all co-authors of the recent study headed by researchers at Penn State.
Researchers closely examined the cognitive changes of participants over 12 years, from ages 56 to 68 through neuropsychological tests. Using a self-reported assessment titled the International Index of Erectile Function, the participants’ erectile function and sexual satisfaction were measured in tandem with their cognitive abilities. Subsequently, the researchers built a statistical model to show the changes in the three variables over time.
The study results uncovered that decreases in erectile function and sexual satisfaction were associated with memory decline, strengthening the evidence of a connection between psychological and physical health.
Tyler Bell, a co-lead author on the study and a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California San Diego highlights the importance of these findings, stating, “Our results show that neglecting aspects of sexual health, especially erectile function, can have harmful impacts on our memory.”
Seeing erectile function and sexual satisfaction as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle may help intervene with cognitive decline, Sliwinski notes, adding, “We already have a pill for treating erectile dysfunction. What we don’t have is 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 also focus on improving sexual satisfaction and overall well-being, not just treating the symptom.”
The study was supported by the National Institute of Aging at the National Institutes of Health.