Key Takeaways

  • Sexual health is tied to your overall health—your physical, emotional, and mental health.

  • Anytime that you have a change in your health status, your sexual health status may change as well.

  • Be your own advocate with your health care team and your partner.

Make discussions around sexual health a normal part of your discussions about your overall health with your health-care team. Confronting fears and societal stigmas around sexual health can be challenging but remember this: You are not alone. Sexual health issues can happen for all of us, no matter how well we take care of ourselves. Issues can arise due to medical conditions, hormone levels, medications, pain, and other factors. If you are experiencing common issues such as vaginal discomfort, erectile dysfunction, or low libido, know that millions of others in your age cohort are experiencing the exact same symptoms. And, importantly, there are a variety of treatments and approaches to mitigate these symptoms.

Having the sexual health conversation

Not all health care professionals will ask you directly about your sexual health, and that’s something that needs to change since our overall health and our sexual health are interconnected. During a series of focus groups that National Council on Aging (NCOA) held on the topic of sexual health, many participants mentioned that their physicians didn’t discuss matters of sexual health with them.

One participant commented: “I think they are not aware that we are still viable people.”

Another participant emphasized how important it is for older adults to bring the topic of sexual health up during a medical exam:

“I really believe you have to advocate for yourself. In life, you can’t wait for anyone to get involved. You have to know. You’ve got to know what you need and get out there and get it one way or the other. You cannot sit back.”

Any time that you have a change in your health status, your sexual health status may change as well. Be open and honest. No question is out of bounds. If your primary physician isn’t screening you for some of the common issues related to sexual health, be assertive and advocate for your own health. If your primary physician cannot address all of your questions or concerns, they should put you in contact with other medical professionals who can help.

Below are some general questions that can be useful to get your sexual health conversation started whether you are currently experiencing an issue with your sexual health or not. Always write your specific questions ahead of time and take these questions with you to your appointment.

Sexual health conversation starters: Questions for your health care team

  • Can you make sure to include sexual health as part of my annual check-ups?
  • Sexual intercourse is painful/impossible for me due to ________________ (vaginal dryness, incontinence, erectile dysfunction, chronic pain, etc.). What steps can I take to remedy this?
  • What are the potential side effects of my medications on my sexual health?
  • What impact can this surgery/intervention have on my ability to have sexual intercourse?
  • Since I have/have had ________________ (list past or current illnesses, chronic conditions, surgeries, etc.), what changes related to my sexual health should I be on the lookout for?
  • What do I need to know about sexually transmitted diseases? What questions should I ask my partner(s) to understand their exposure to these diseases?

The same rules that apply to speaking with health care professionals apply to speaking with your partner(s): Be open and honest.

As the Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond report recommends: “Approach a sexual issue as a problem to be solved together rather than an exercise in assigning blame.” The report goes on to emphasize how important it is to find the right time to talk and to create an atmosphere of kindness for any discussion related to sexual health.

Sexual health is vital to your well-being across your entire life span, plain and simple. Sexual health is important because it is tied to your overall health—your physical, emotional, and mental health. And communicating openly with your health care team and your partner about any concerns or questions that you have about your sexual health is important to caring for your total selfcare plan.

References

“Sexuality,” National Institute on Aging, found on the internet at www.nia.nih.gov/health/topics/sexuality

Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond, Harvard Health Publishing, found on the internet at www.health.harvard.edu/aging/sexuality-in-midlife-and-beyond