Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Degree Granting Department
School of Aging Studies
Ross Andel, Ph.D.
Sandra Reynolds, Ph.D.
Cathy McEvoy, Ph.D.
Tamara Baker, Ph.D.
Alyssa Gamaldo, Ph.D.
sexual activity, hugging, arthritis, diabetes, biomarkers
Research on sexual behavior in late life is limited but is growing. Despite ageist stereotypes associating old age with asexuality, older adults continue to desire and engage in sexual behavior. Previous studies have examined the relationship between health and the ability to engage in sexual behavior, sexual satisfaction, desire, or interest in sex. Research has yet to examine the potential reverse of this relationship, where sexual behavior may serve as a protective factor against health outcomes.
This dissertation examined three research questions to test the relationship between sexual activity or hugging and self-reported health outcomes (e.g., arthritis and diabetes) and biomarkers (e.g., C-reactive protein (CRP) and hemoglobin (HbA1c)). The first question explored whether sexual activity or hugging is associated health outcomes. The second question explored whether social support modifies the relationship between sexual activity or hugging and health outcomes. The final question explored whether sexual activity or hugging and demographic or health variables interact as moderators to health outcomes.
This study examined data of older adults between 57 and 85 years, from two waves of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP). The subjective health outcomes were self-reported arthritis and self-reported diabetes diagnoses. Objective health measures were analyzed using biomarkers. Both C-reactive protein and HbA1c were collected from dried blood spots. The main independent variables of interest were sexual activity and hugging. Sexual activity was assessed by combining participant responses to frequency of intercourse, foreplay and masturbation in the last 12 months. Hugging was assessed by participant responses to frequency of close physical contact over the last 12 months.
Results from question one indicated at wave 1, engaging in hugging was associated with higher likelihood of self-reported arthritis (OR = 1.23, p = 0.029), while sexual activity was associated with decreased likelihood of diabetes (OR = 0.61, p < 0.001). Examining objective markers of health, sexual activity was associated with 0.25 points lower HbA1c level (p < 0.001). Although some significant results were found at wave 1, none of the associations remained significant when examining change in health at wave 2.
The findings from question two examined the interaction of social support and sexual activity or hugging on health outcomes. The interactions between social support and sexual activity or social support and hugging did not significantly influence health at wave 1 or change in health at 2.
Question three examined potential moderators of the relationship between sexual activity or hugging and health, including age, race, education, income, gender, and hours of sleep. At wave 1, the findings showed a significant interaction between race and sexual activity associated with a decreased likelihood of reporting arthritis (OR = 0.79, p = 0.021). A significant interaction of age and sexual activity was associated with an increased likelihood of diabetes (OR = 1.04, p = 0.008). At wave 2, a significant interaction between age and hugging was associated with decreased likelihood of arthritis (OR = 0.97, p = 0.006), while the interaction term of sleep and hugging was associated with increased likelihood of diabetes (OR = 1.19, p = 0.015).
The results from this study show some support for the exploration of a potential bi-directional pathway between sexual activity or hugging and health. This study provides some evidence indicating the importance of understanding the role of sexual activity or hugging in the lives of older adults, and the possible influence on physical health. Future studies should continue exploring this pathway indicating possible benefits of engaging in sexual activity or hugging on health, and a larger impact on quality of life for older adults who desire to maintain intimate relationships in late life.
Scholar Commons Citation
Sharpe, Chantelle, "Sex after Gray Hair? Association between Sexual Activity, Hugging, and Health among older Adults?" (2017). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.