Older adults who value sexual activity and engage in it have better social lives and psychological well-being, according to a small study in Scotland. 

Older adults said "they miss and want to engage in sexual behaviors, whether that be a kiss to intercourse," said study coauthor Taylor-Jane Flynn in an email. "For many, these behaviors remained an important element in their life."

Flynn, a psychology PhD candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University, said the study was inspired by her work as a health care assistant for elderly people.

Although quality of life is a key consideration for older adults, sexuality is rarely studied, write Flynn and Alan Gow, an associate professor of psychology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, in the journal Age and Ageing.

The researchers recruited 133 Scottish adults aged 65 and over by distributing questionnaires at local clubs, small businesses and older people’s groups.

About half the participants lived with a spouse or partner.

The questionnaire asked how often in the last six months participants had engaged in six sexual behaviors: touching/holding hands, embracing/hugging, kissing, mutual stroking, masturbation and intercourse.

Participants also rated how important those behaviors are to them, on a five-point scale ranging from “not at all important” to “very important.”

Additionally, the questionnaires assessed participants’ quality of life based on physical health, psychological health, social relationships and environment.

Between 75 and 89 percent said they'd engaged in kissing, hugging and holding hands or touching. Men and women scored about the same for frequency and importance of sexual behaviors overall, and for quality of life.

Although people with frequent sexual activity also placed higher importance on it, the analysis found the two measures were associated with different aspects of quality of life.

Participants reporting more frequent sexual behavior rated their social relationships as higher quality, while people who found sexual activity to be important had higher scores for psychological quality of life.

Overall, however, seniors’ health status had the strongest impact on all aspects of quality of life.

John DeLamater, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, said the fact that participants were recruited in community settings - which may attract more healthy and active older people - might affect the results.

“If they are generally healthier (which the results show to be associated with quality of life), they are probably more sexually active,” DeLamater said in an email.

For people who have valued sexuality throughout their lives, he noted, “continuing activity provides protection against a sense of aging and loss, and of continuity if the person is in a long-term relationship.” That may explain the links between sex and well-being found in the study, he said.

While the current study only looked at associations and cannot determine whether sexuality raises quality of life, Gow noted, he hopes that future research will focus more on this subject.

“What we hope is that our current findings encourage other researchers interested in the determinants of health and well-being in older adults to also consider sexual behaviors,” Gow said in an email.

The sexuality of older people should be considered and encouraged, DeLamater said. “We should encourage couples to spend time alone, provide arrangements in care facilities that enable sexual intimacy, provide sexual health information in medical settings.”