Discussing our sex life can be a sensitive topic, especially during menopause. Given all the hormonal changes happening, women often lack a sex drive. But it’s not only a loss of libido which can factor in a change in our sexual appetite. We have others to consider. For example, the change in body shape, some women experience a thickening of the waistline, urinary incontinence, fatigue and lack of self esteem, the latter often because of all these changes! Just some of the reasons women are put off having sex.
Vaginal dryness can make sexual intercourse difficult and sometimes painful. This is a shame as sex is good for your health, your mood and your relationship with your partner. Your partner also needs to be understanding, but even when they are fully supportive, it can be confusing and complicated for them too. Talking helps not only to get what you are thinking out there, but your partner or whoever you talk to) might just have some suggestions to help. A gold reminder is: using lubricants always helps.
Why are we talking about sex?
That’s because there has been a NEW study published demonstrating that a regular sex life can delay the onset of menopause. The research by University College London is based on data collected from the USA’s Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation, which provides a unique insight into women’s midlife health. Three thousand women took part in this study over a ten year period from 1996.
Women who reported having sexual activity weekly were 28% less likely to have experienced an early menopause than those who had sex less than once a month.
Similarly those who had sex monthly were 19% less likely to have attained menopause (defined as 12 months without a period) than those who had sex less than once a month.
Sex is healthy for you as couple and also good for your overall reproductive system. I know that with the menopause libido can decrease and some days you would rather do anything to avoid having sex, but there really are ways to keep the intimacy alive.
Whilst the study didn’t really explore reasons behind this link, the author hypothesises that the physical cues of sex may signal to the body there is a possibility of getting pregnant. It is a kind of opportunistic signal for our body. But for women who aren’t having sex regularly in midlife, an earlier menopause could make more biological sense. It is our primal animal instinct. If you are not going to reproduce there is no point in ovulating and you are better off utilising this energy in another way ( from an evolutionary point of view). Ovulation is expensive in terms of energy usage and your immune system is impaired during ovulation, making women more susceptible to disease than at other times.
A lack of sexual activity means that getting pregnant is clearly unlikely. If you look at it from this perspective, there is no benefit in the body allocating energy to the ovulation process. Instead the findings support the ‘Grandmother Hypothesis’ – a theory which suggests the menopause originally evolved in humans to reduce the reproductive conflict between generations of women to increase the survive and thrive rate of their grandchildren.
There may be a biological energy trade-off between investing energy in ovulation or investing the same energy elsewhere, for example keeping active by looking after grandchildren, thereby increasing their survival rate. This research is based on the SWAN study we spoke of earlier. The average age of the women taking part was 45 years old, they had two children (on average) and were mostly married or in
a relationship and living with their partner, and had some form of sex life. Forty-five per cent of the women taking part experienced a natural menopause at the age of 52.
At the outset none of the women enrolled had entered menopause, but 46% were found to be in early peri-menopause ( starting to experience some menopausal symptoms such as irregular periods and hot flushes). Fifty four percent were pre-menopausal having regular cycles and showing no symptoms at all. In their analysis researchers ruled out factors which could have explained the association, including oestrogen levels, education, Body Mass Index (BMI), race, smoking habits and when a woman first started her period.
Sexual activity was not just defined as intercourse in the study. It also included oral sex, self-stimulation and sexual touching or caressing. Researchers carrying out the study said they also tested whether living with a male partner affected the onset of menopause. One existing theory was that increased exposure to male pheromones was able to delay menopause. BUT they found no correlation between whether or not a male partner was present in the household. The next step is to try to replicate the findings in other population groups, although the author stated there was little available data on sex and menopause. And we know that! The fact is not many studies have been done around menopause.
The mechanism of the relationship between sex and menopause is a promising avenue for future research and could also open the door on behavioural interventions and better management.