The majority of older Americans are sexually active and view intimacy as an important part of life with which not even illness can interfere, according to a national survey.

Billed as the first comprehensive, nationally representative survey to assess the prevalence of sexual activity of people 57 and older, the research finds that the “bothersome” sexual problems that sometimes strike older Americans do little to slow down their sex lives.

“This study breaks new ground in social and behavioral research,” said Richard Suzman, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Aging's Behavioral and Social Research Program, in a news release. “Its portrait of this aspect of older Americans’ lives suggests a previously uncharacterized vitality and interest in sexuality that carries well into advanced age, which perhaps has not been appreciated as an important part of late life.”

Researchers gathered information from a nationally representative sample of 3,005 men and women ages 57 to 85 years, asking about each person’s marital or other relationship status, frequency and types of sexual activity during the past 12 months, physical health, and communication with a physician about sex. They also asked sexually active respondents about the presence of sexual problems.

The study, which comes from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, with research supported by the National Institutes of Health, was primarily funded by the NIA.

It also found that many older adults are sexually active, but about half of the men and women surveyed reported at least one sexual problem and about a third report at least two problems. Specifically, the survey showed that:

— A large portion of respondents said they were sexually active in the preceding 12 months, but the percentage declined with age — from 73 percent of those ages 57 to 64, to 53 percent of those ages 65 to 74, to 26 percent of those ages 75 to 85.

— Older women were significantly less likely to report sexual activity than older men and less likely to be in intimate relationships, due in part to women’s status as widows and the earlier mortality, on average, of men.

— Eighty-one percent of men and 51 percent of women reporting excellent or very good health said they had been sexually active in the past 12 months. Of those in fair or poor health, a considerably lower percentage (47 percent of men and 26 percent of women) reported activity in the previous year. Diabetes and hypertension were strongly associated with some sexual concerns.

— About half of sexually active older adults report at least one “bothersome” sexual problem. Thirty-seven percent of sexually active men said they had erectile difficulties. Women most often reported low desire (43 percent), difficulty with vaginal lubrication (39 percent), and inability to climax (34 percent).

— Most older adults have not discussed sex with their doctors. Despite the high prevalence of sexual problems, only 38 percent of men and 22 percent of women said they had discussed sex with a physician since age 50.

Researchers added that the survey also stresses the need for older Americans to be educated on how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found stability in HIV diagnoses among people aged 50 and older, the number of older people diagnosed with AIDS and living with HIV is increasing, as individuals who were infected with HIV at younger ages are living longer before progressing to AIDS.