What You Don’t Know About Sex Drive and Aging

illustration of couple in bed, man with thought bubble with a heart inside it

Illustration by Giovanna Pineda/KCM

Here’s how we can all ensure a fulfilling sex life at any age.

As pop culture would have it, men are perpetual adolescents: always horny and never evolving. Women, meanwhile, tend to vanish from the sexual landscape over time, at least in movies and TV. On-screen heroines are almost always younger than their male counterparts — and while male sex symbols are “allowed” to age, their love interests stay youthful, the optimal “virile” woman landing somewhere in her mid-20s to 30s. With a few exceptions (hi, Samantha Jones), women on screen appear to “age out” of sexual desire, while men apparently keep sowing their oats far into the winter of their lives.

But do these media stereotypes bear any resemblance to real life? KCM spoke to Dr. Regina Koepp PsyD, ABPP, a board-certified clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and founder of the Center for Mental Health & Aging, and Rachel Hoffman, Ph.D., Chief Therapy Officer at Real, to get some answers about what really happens to men and women’s sexual desire as they age. And — maybe more importantly — how women and men can manage the fluctuations in their sex drives over the years to ensure a fulfilling sex life at any age.

How do women’s sex drives change as they age?

There’s no set answer to this one. “As a sex therapist, I’ve realized that sex drives are extremely unique to the individual and there is a range of life events that can impact one’s sex drive,” says Dr. Hoffman. “Pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and menopause all impact estrogen and testosterone levels. This, in turn, may decrease sex drive and cause vaginal dryness  — but these events have widely varying impacts.”

Predictably, the M-word comes into play too: “As you approach menopause, sex drive is known to change,” adds Dr. Koepp. “In your 40s, your menstrual cycle may become longer or shorter, heavier or lighter, and more or less frequent, until eventually, your ovaries stop releasing eggs. When you’ve had no periods for 12 months, you’ve reached menopause. During perimenopause and menopause, many women report a lower libido — though a small percentage report a higher one.”

How do men’s sex drives change as they age?

We hear a lot less about this phenomenon, but men experience hormonal changes over time, too. “For men, changes like a reduction in testosterone happen slowly,” explains Dr. Koepp. This is a process called “andropause” — a natural lowering of testosterone with age.

“Some men may experience a change in sex drive or other types of sexual dysfunctions, while other men might not see any type of change,” says Dr. Hoffman. “Also prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men, requires treatments that can lead to sexual side effects.”

What do men and women have in common as they age? 

Life events that have nothing to do with our hormones can also impact our sex drive — and that goes for both men and women. Chronic illness, relational stressors, trauma, and grief can obviously have a huge effect on our psyches and libidos, as can mental health issues like anxiety and depression. 

“Medications can also have sexual side effects,” notes Dr. Hoffman. “The one key difference is that there are clear life events that trigger hormonal shifts for those with ovaries, while for men there isn’t one universal event.” 

Interestingly, aging itself can cause a tremendous amount of anxiety, which may impact one’s libido. A more positive attitude toward aging (which can be boosted by a kinder, more nuanced portrayal of aging by the media) might be very helpful for men and women.

What are the most inaccurate stereotypes about sex drive and aging?

“I’ve worked with so many aging clients who have incredible sex lives,” says Dr. Hoffman. “Society and the media have painted a certain picture of older adults as lacking sex drive and passion, but individuals of all ages and genders can have thriving sex lives, choose to experiment sexually, and have high libidos.”

As is so often the case, much depends on attitude. A recent survey of more than 1,000 adults between 65 and 80 years old found that 50.9 percent of men and 30.8 percent of women reported being sexually active. Yet in this same survey, only 17.3 percent of adults aged 65-80 reported speaking to their health care provider about sexual health in the past two years. This may well be because of the stigma surrounding sex among older adults, which is often portrayed either as something shameful or a punchline — if it’s acknowledged at all.

“It’s time we shift the narrative about aging and sexuality toward a more accurate and holistic view,” says Dr. Koepp. “There are so many benefits to sexual relationships over 50: physical, cognitive, relational, psychological, and spiritual. The sooner we can remove negative beliefs about aging from conversations around intimacy and sexual health, the better.”

How can we boost our sex drive as we age?

Want to rev up your libido but not sure where to start? “There are so many ways,” says Dr. Hoffman. “Experimentation with toys and lubricants is one way to increase sex drive. Engaging with self-pleasure and re-learning how to excite oneself is another incredible way. Due to our changing bodies and hormonal shifts, it is very possible that how we experience pleasure changes as well, so it’s important to continuously learn how you want to feel touched and where your erogenous zones are located.”

What if my sex drive’s decreased, but my partner’s hasn’t (or vice versa)?

The first step is communication. It’s important that you trust your partner enough to talk to them about your sex drive, regardless of whether you’re on the same page. Remember that it’s so rare that you two will have identical sex drives, so it’s important that both your relationship needs are voiced. 

“One big issue is that the word ‘sex’ is typically used interchangeably as intercourse,” Dr. Hoffman points out. “But there’s a range of intimacy that doesn’t require intercourse. I recommend couples experiment with different types of pleasure, including massage, foreplay, and intimate kissing. This can sometimes meet the needs of both partners, as they have a shared goal of feeling closer to one another.” 

This shared intimacy needn’t even be sexual. “Cultivate a sense of compassion and positive regard for one another,” advises Dr. Koepp. “Text each other throughout the day to share what you appreciate and are thinking about the other.”

Is there anything people shouldn’t do if they’re worried about a diminished sex drive?

Start with refusing to direct shame or blame inward: “The first thing is to try to have empathy toward yourself,” says Dr. Hoffman. “There are a range of events and causes for potential shifts in one’s sex drive. Remember that it’s a very common experience, and try to have curiosity and openness to experimentation. If you’re unhappy with your sex drive, there are fun and exciting ways to reconnect with yourself and a partner if that is what you ultimately desire.”

“Change your sexpectations,” says Dr. Koepp. “I’ve worked with people with physical disabilities and life-altering medical conditions for decades. Shifting your expectations about what sex ‘should’ look like can help to enliven your creativity. It can definitely be worth talking to a healthcare provider as well. And if you’re 65, be prepared to initiate the topic yourself, since doctors are less likely to bring it up.”

KCM’s interviews with Dr. Hoffman and Dr. Regina Koepp have been edited and condensed.