This story was about an observational study suggesting a link between sexual activity/fulfillment and better cognitive function in older people. A story that did more than scratch the surface of this study would have uncovered an obvious limitation: Older people sometimes aren’t healthy enough to have good (or any) sex, and seniors who aren’t healthy enough for sex probably also have brains that are less healthy than their sexually fulfilled peers. So suggesting that sex “leads to a sharper mind” is an oversimplification of what’s going on here.
We appreciate the story’s closing caveat that “Causal relation between sexuality and cognitive function couldn’t be determined.” But such a statement can’t make up for the cause-and-effect language of the headline.
Sexuality in later life is important, but complicated. We expect the Wall Street Journal’s Research Report column – which we’ve praised in the past – to be able to grasp these complexities and help readers understand them better. We look for news industry leaders at times like this, when we see other stories with similar flaws, and headlines that blare: “Sex makes you smarter – here’s proof”….”In your 70s and losing memory? Try some sex”…”Want good memory? Have an active sex life,” etc.
We’ll assume that costs of sex are generally Not Applicable for readers (although erectile dysfunction drugs are certainly big business and can be costly). We won’t penalize the story for not addressing costs here.
The story posits a cognitive benefit for older adults with more fulfilling sex lives. However, it never quantifies that benefit. It says the sexually less-fulfilled had “lower average cognitive scores compared with those who felt sexuality was important and were satisfied with their current sexual activity. The association between lower cognitive functioning and the belief that sexuality was unimportant was significant in both sexes, but seemed stronger in women.”
How significant was the difference here, and would it matter to people in their daily lives? Or is it just a statistically significant difference that has no real-word meaning? How much stronger was the association in women? The story doesn’t tell us.
We’d also note that this is a cross sectional study that took a snapshot of participants’ cognitive ability at one point in time. The study tells us nothing about potential for sex to prevent cognitive decline, just its association with cognitive abilities at one particular moment.
Older adults are susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases like anyone else. Increased sexual activity might increase those risks.
We acknowledge that we’re holding the bar high here, but unapologetically, especially with recent studies showing rising rates of STDs in seniors.
The story includes two caveats about this observational study in the very last line: “The study didn’t include subjects with severe cognitive impairment. Causal relation between sexuality and cognitive function couldn’t be determined.”
While we certainly appreciate those restraining comments, we don’t think they’re sufficient to counterbalance the active language of the headline — “Sex in Old Age May Lead to a Sharper Mind” — which clearly suggests that sex causes cognitive benefits.
In fact, a commenter on the story was quick to pick up on the obvious limitation of a study like this.
“Sex in old age is good for the brain! This is a revelation. Or could it be that old people who are healthy enough to have sex have healthier brains? The confusion of correlation with causality is widespread.”
The story would have done well to explain this rather than leaving it to the commenters.
We didn’t see any disease mongering.
No independent sources are quoted. An expert would likely have emphasized the limitations of a study like this.
There were a variety of ways that the story might have delved deeper here to earn a Satisfactory score. For instance, did the study consider masturbation and how that might affect cognitive functioning?
But mainly we were looking for some discussion of other healthy habits that are linked to better cognitive function with aging: healthy diet, exercise, continuing intellectual engagement, etc.
The story didn’t address any of the health problems or other issues that can make sex less available or fulfilling for older adults. For example, the death of a spouse, erectile dysfunction, arthritis, chronic pain, etc. Then again, these factors may not affect availability of sex for the elderly as much as we think — what goes on in assisting living facilities may surprise us all. Regardless, we’d like to see the story explore this. We’d reiterate that people in worse overall health are also likely to have worse brain function and have less ability to perform sexually. This is an example of where our EVIDENCE and AVAILABILITY criteria comments overlap, but build on each other.
The story says, “Previous studies have focused on the prevalence of sexual activity in older people. But the influence of cognitive decline on how sexuality is perceived in later life wasn’t known, researchers said.”
A quick search didn’t identify any studies to contradict that claim.
We couldn’t locate a news release for this study, but there isn’t enough original reporting to assure us that the story didn’t rely on a news release. Therefore, we’ll rate it Not Applicable.