Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 47, Issue 6, pp 1711–1719 | Cite as

Sexual Activity and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults

  • Mark S. AllenEmail author
Original Paper


This prospective study tested whether sexual activity and emotional closeness during partnered sexual activity relate to cognitive decline (episodic memory performance) in older adulthood. In total, 6016 adults aged 50 and over (2672 men, 3344 women; M age = 66.0 ± 8.8 years) completed an episodic memory task and self-report questions related to health, sexual activity, and emotional closeness. Two years later, participants again completed the episodic memory task. After controlling for demographic and health-related lifestyle factors, more frequent sexual activity and greater emotional closeness during partnered sexual activity were associated with better memory performance. The association between sexual activity and memory performance was stronger among older participants in the sample. Memory performance worsened over 2 years, but change in memory performance was unrelated to sexual activity or emotional closeness during partnered sexual activity. These findings build on experimental research that has found sexual activity enhances episodic memory in non-human animals. Further research using longer timeframes and alternative measures of cognitive decline is recommended.


Cognitive function Episodic memory Gerontology Sexual health Social behavior 


  1. Aggarwal, N. T., Wilson, R. S., Beck, T. L., Rajan, K. B., de Leon, C. F. M., Evans, D. A., & Everson-Rose, S. A. (2014). Perceived stress and change in cognitive function among adults aged 65 and older. Psychosomatic Medicine, 76, 80–85.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Aiken, L. S., & West, S. G. (1991). Multiple regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. London, UK: Sage.Google Scholar
  3. Akers, K. G., Martinez-Canabal, A., Restivo, L., Yiu, A. P., De Cristofaro, A., Hsiang, H. L., … Ohira, K. (2014). Hippocampal neurogenesis regulates forgetting during adulthood and infancy. Science, 344, 598–602.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Anstey, K. J., Mack, H. A., & Cherbuin, N. (2009). Alcohol consumption as a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline: Meta-analysis of prospective studies. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 17, 542–555.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Anstey, K. J., von Sanden, C., Salim, A., & O’Kearney, R. (2007). Smoking as a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline: A meta-analysis of prospective studies. American Journal of Epidemiology, 166, 367–378.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Baars, M. A. E., Van Boxtel, M. P. J., Dijkstra, J. B., Visser, P. J., Van Den Akker, M., Verhey, F. R. J., & Jolles, J. (2009). Predictive value of mild cognitive impairment for dementia. Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, 27, 173–181.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Beckman, N., Waern, M., Gustafson, D., & Skoog, I. (2008). Secular trends in self reported sexual activity and satisfaction in Swedish 70 year olds: Cross sectional survey of four populations, 1971–2001. The BMJ, 337, a279. Scholar
  8. Bedos, M., Portillo, W., & Paredes, R. G. (2018). Neurogenesis and sexual behaviour. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. Scholar
  9. Blaicher, W., Gruber, D., Bieglmayer, C., Blaicher, A. M., Knogler, W., & Huber, J. C. (1999). The role of oxytocin in relation to female sexual arousal. Gynecologic and Obstetric Investigation, 47, 125–126.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Burgess, N., Maguire, E. A., & O’Keefe, J. (2002). The human hippocampus and spatial and episodic memory. Neuron, 35, 625–641.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Buysse, D. J., Reynolds, C. F., Monk, T. H., Berman, S. R., & Kupfer, D. J. (1989). The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index: A new instrument for psychiatric practice and research. Psychiatry Research, 28, 193–213.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Campbell, A. (2010). Oxytocin and human social behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 281–295.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Cohen, J. (1992). A power primer. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 155–159.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Cormie, P., Newton, R. U., Taaffe, D. R., Spry, N., Joseph, D., Hamid, M. A., & Galvao, D. A. (2013). Exercise maintains sexual activity in men undergoing androgen suppression for prostate cancer: A randomized controlled trial. Prostate Cancer and Prostatic Diseases, 16, 170–175.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. de Jong, T. R., Menon, R., Bludau, A., Grund, T., Biermeier, V., Klampfl, S. M., … Neumann, I. D. (2015). Salivary oxytocin concentrations in response to running, sexual self-stimulation, breastfeeding and the TSST: The Regensburg Oxytocin Challenge (ROC) study. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 62, 381–388.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Deary, I. J., Corley, J., Gow, A. J., Harris, S. E., Houlihan, L. M., Marioni, R. E., … Starr, J. M. (2009). Age-associated cognitive decline. British Medical Bulletin, 92, 135–152.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Dello Buono, M., Zaghi, P. C., Padoani, W., Scocco, P., Urciuoli, O., Pauro, P., & De Leo, D. (1998). Sexual feelings and sexual life in an Italian sample of 335 elderly 65 to 106-year-olds. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 26, 155–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Deng, W., Aimone, J. B., & Gage, F. H. (2010). New neurons and new memories: How does adult hippocampal neurogenesis affect learning and memory? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11, 339–350.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  19. Dupret, D., Fabre, A., Döbrössy, M. D., Panatier, A., Rodríguez, J. J., Lamarque, S., … Abrous, D. N. (2007). Spatial learning depends on both the addition and removal of new hippocampal neurons. PLoS Biology, 5, e214.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  20. Dupret, D., Revest, J. M., Koehl, M., Ichas, F., De Giorgi, F., Costet, P., … Piazza, P. V. (2008). Spatial relational memory requires hippocampal adult neurogenesis. PLoS ONE, 3, e1959.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  21. Galea, L. A. M., Wainwright, S. R., Roes, M. M., Duarte-Guterman, P., Chow, C., & Hamson, D. K. (2013). Sex, hormones and neurogenesis in the hippocampus: Hormonal modulation of neurogenesis and potential functional implications. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 25, 1039–1061.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Gauthier, S., Reisberg, B., Zaudig, M., Petersen, R. C., Ritchie, K., Broich, K., … Cummings, J. L. (2006). Mild cognitive impairment. The Lancet, 367, 1262–1270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Glasper, E. R., & Gould, E. (2013). Sexual experience restores age-related decline in adult neurogenesis and hippocampal function. Hippocampus, 23, 303–312.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Glasper, E. R., LaMarca, E. A., Bocarsly, M. E., Fasolino, M., Opendak, M., & Gould, E. (2015). Sexual experience enhances cognitive flexibility and dendritic spine density in the medial prefrontal cortex. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 125, 73–79.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Grysman, A., & Hudson, J. A. (2013). Gender differences in autobiographical memory: Developmental and methodological considerations. Developmental Review, 33, 239–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hartmans, C., Comijs, H., & Jonker, C. (2014). Cognitive functioning and its influence on sexual behavior in normal aging and dementia. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 29, 441–446.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Hayes, A. F. (2013). Introduction to mediation, moderation, and conditional process analysis: A regression-based approach. New York, NY: Guilford.Google Scholar
  28. Juster, F. T., & Suzman, R. (1995). An overview of the Health and Retirement Study. Journal of Human Resources, 30, S7–S56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kalmbach, D. A., Arnedt, J. T., Pillai, V., & Ciesla, J. A. (2015). The impact of sleep on female sexual response and behavior: A pilot study. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12, 1221–1232.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Kim, J. I., Lee, J. W., Lee, Y. A., Lee, D. H., Han, N. S., Choi, Y. K., … Han, J. S. (2013). Sexual activity counteracts the suppressive effects of chronic stress on adult hippocampal neurogenesis and recognition memory. Brain Research, 1538, 26–40.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Leuner, B., Glasper, E. R., & Gould, E. (2010). Sexual experience promotes adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus despite an initial elevation in stress hormones. PLoS ONE, 5, e11597.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  32. Lourida, I., Soni, M., Thompson-Coon, J., Purandare, N., Lang, I. A., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Llewellyn, D. J. (2013). Mediterranean diet, cognitive function, and dementia: A systematic review. Epidemiology, 24, 479–489.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Marshall, A. C., Cooper, N. R., Segrave, R., & Geeraert, N. (2015). The effects of long-term stress exposure on aging cognition: A behavioral and EEG investigation. Neurobiology of Aging, 36, 2136–2144.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. McArdle, J. J., Smith, J. P., & Willis, R. (2009). Cognition and economic outcomes in the Health and Retirement Survey (No. w15266). National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  35. Mercer, C. H., Tanton, C., Prah, P., Erens, B., Sonnenberg, P., Clifton, S., … Datta, J. (2013). Changes in sexual attitudes and lifestyles in Britain through the life course and over time: Findings from the national surveys of sexual attitudes and lifestyles (Natsal). The Lancet, 382, 1781–1794.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Mielke, M. M., Vemuri, P., & Rocca, W. A. (2014). Clinical epidemiology of Alzheimer’s disease: Assessing sex and gender differences. Clinical Epidemiology, 6, 37–48.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  37. Opdebeeck, C., Martyr, A., & Clare, L. (2016). Cognitive reserve and cognitive function in healthy older people: A meta-analysis. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 23, 40–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Opendak, M., Briones, B. A., & Gould, E. (2016). Social behavior, hormones and adult neurogenesis. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 41, 71–86.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Owen, S. F., Tuncdemir, S. N., Bader, P. L., Tirko, N. N., Fishell, G., & Tsien, R. W. (2013). Oxytocin enhances hippocampal spike transmission by modulating fast-spiking interneurons. Nature, 500, 458–462.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  40. Padoani, W., Buono, M. D., Marietta, P., Scocco, P., Zaghi, P. C., & De Leo, D. (2000). Influence of cognitive status on the sexual life of 352 elderly Italians aged 65–105 years. Gerontology, 46, 258–265.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Plassman, B. L., Williams, J. W., Burke, J. R., Holsinger, T., & Benjamin, S. (2010). Systematic review: Factors associated with risk for and possible prevention of cognitive decline in later life. Annals of Internal Medicine, 153, 182–193.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Prakash, R. S., Voss, M. W., Erickson, K. I., & Kramer, A. F. (2015). Physical activity and cognitive vitality. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 769–797.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Prince, M., Bryce, R., Albanese, E., Wimo, A., Ribeiro, W., & Ferri, C. P. (2013). The global prevalence of dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 9, 63–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Rubin, D. B. (1987). Multiple imputation for nonresponse in surveys. New York, NY: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Salthouse, T. A. (2009). When does age-related cognitive decline begin? Neurobiology of Aging, 30, 507–514.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  46. Sofi, F., Valecchi, D., Bacci, D., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., Casini, A., & Macchi, C. (2011). Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: A meta-analysis of prospective studies. Journal of Internal Medicine, 269, 107–117.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Spritzer, M. D., Curtis, M. G., DeLoach, J. P., Maher, J., & Shulman, L. M. (2016). Sexual interactions with unfamiliar females reduce hippocampal neurogenesis among adult male rats. Neuroscience, 318, 143–156.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  48. Squire, L. R. (1992). Memory and the hippocampus: A synthesis from findings with rats, monkeys, and humans. Psychological Review, 99, 195–231.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Steptoe, A., Breeze, E., Banks, J., & Nazroo, J. (2013). Cohort profile: The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. International Journal of Epidemiology, 42, 1640–1648.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Valls-Pedret, C., Sala-Vila, A., Serra-Mir, M., Corella, D., de la Torre, R., Martínez-González, M. Á., … Estruch, R. (2015). Mediterranean diet and age-related cognitive decline: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, 175, 1094–1103.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Veening, J. G., De Jong, T. R., Waldinger, M. D., Korte, S. M., & Olivier, B. (2015). The role of oxytocin in male and female reproductive behavior. European Journal of Pharmacology, 753, 209–228.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. Wright, H., & Jenks, R. A. (2016). Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitive function in older age. Age and Ageing, 45, 313–317.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  53. Wright, H., Jenks, R. A., & Demeyere, N. (2017). Frequent sexual activity predicts specific cognitive abilities in older adults. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WollongongWollongongAustralia

Personalised recommendations