3/5 How much do desire and libido change as we age?

Part 3 of our ultimate guide on how to have the best sex possible, from your 20s to your 70s and beyond.

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how much do desire and libido change as we age

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Part 3 of our ultimate guide on how to have the best sex possible, from your 20s to your 70s and beyond. We want to arm readers with practical advice that they can implement to have a satisfying and healthy sex life regardless of their age. 

How much do desire and libido change as we age, and to what extent do they play a role in how sex evolves

Desire and sexual frequency do, on average, decrease as we age. The NATSAL 3 figures show a smaller proportion of adults report having had sex in the last four weeks as we get into our later decades. We may find we want sex less as our sex hormone levels fall, and we accumulate health issues and medications that may impact libido or sexual function (such as antidepressants or antihypertensives), over time.

But answering this question properly requires understanding that not everyone experiences desire in the same way, or has the same reasons for having sex.

Most of us experience some of our desire for sex spontaneously, and some of it responsively (i.e.felt in reaction to an external cue or trigger). A food analogy might help us to make better sense of these two experiences of appetite: spontaneous desire can be thought of as closer to hunger, whereas responsive desire is more like walking past the bakery and only realising you want to eat when the smell of freshly baked bread hits you.

We tend to experience more spontaneous desire when we are in the first 18 months or so of a new relationship. Novelty is still high, and our hormones are helping us along too: we make lots of vasopressin, dopamine and oxytocin as we pair bond, and this helps us feel more sexually interested. Being younger, and having more sex hormones and noradrenaline (one of the key neurotransmitters involved in our sexual response) also helps.

In longer term relationships, we tend to have a shift to more responsive desire. Wanting sex may depend more upon not having reasons NOT to want it (such as pain, boredom, or dislike of a partner) and upon having the right context and cues to trigger our interest. Rosemary Basson formulated a model of desire based on research from women in long term relationships that suggested we also have different motivations for having sex. “Approach” motivations might be pleasure, emotional intimacy, or orgasm. “Avoidance” motivations tend to be more about stopping something bad from happening – a partner being angry, mate guarding, or feeling undesirable. Getting older is, of course, not synonymous with being in a long term relationship. Sexual boredom and typecasting can occur at any age, and certainly, we see more older people entering new relationships than ever before.

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