Sex isn’t just good for you, it might even prolong your life. Yesterday I described the latest cutting-edge science on how to slash your risk of disease and live longer.
Today, in the second extract from my new book How Not To Age, which looks at all the very latest research on ageing, I’m going to tell you how sex protects health and how age is no barrier at all to a fulfilling sex life.
We’ll also look at how you can improve the function of the most important organ of the body – the brain.
As we’ll see, Alzheimer’s disease is very far from a genetic inevitability, and cutting the risk can begin right now.
Plus, I’ll cover how to boost memory simply by tweaking your diet so you’ll never again forget what you’ve just walked into a room to get (or at least, not so often).
I’m a doctor and bestselling author who’s made it his mission to find the strategies that truly work to turn the clock back. So here’s the cutting-edge science on sex and brainpower…
An Italian study found women who ate unpeeled apples daily scored significantly higher on an index of overall sexual function
Having weekly sex cuts mortality risk by half
The science shows that regular sex really does appear to boost mental and physical health. In a study following more than 2,000 men and women for about six years, those with a higher frequency of sexual activity had a significantly lower risk of dying.
Those having sex 52 or more times a year – approximately weekly – seemed to have only half the mortality rate of those having sex once or less a year, even after taking into account other health conditions and age.
Why is that? Lots of reasons. Sexual activity releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins which decrease inflammation in the body and have been shown to improve the immune system.
Some researchers suggest sex prevents premature death because it’s a form of exercise. Well, yes, but don’t overestimate how useful your exertions are.
If a bout of sexual activity burned a couple of hundred calories, you might think, hey, I can get a side plate of chips with that. Trouble is, it doesn’t. If you hook people up (literally and figuratively) and measure their oxygen consumption during the act, having sex turns out to be the metabolic equivalent of bowling. The average man might expend 21 calories during sex – not much more than he’d have spent watching TV on the sofa.
There is a stereotype that older adults are asexual, but this is ageist and inaccurate. In a 2016 study in England, 86 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women aged 60 to 69 reported being sexually active, as did 59 per cent of men and 34 per cent of women aged 70 to 79, and 31 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women aged 80 or older.
Generally, however, approximately half of older men and women report problems, most often low sexual desire in women and erectile difficulties in men. So what can we do about them?
Lavender and apples boost libido for women
Darker varieties of chocolate are better for you as there is less fat and sugar that counteracts the benefits of blood flow-boosting flavonoids
Is chocolate really the aphrodisiac that the Valentine’s Day industry would have us believe?
The flavonoid phytonutrients in cocoa can help open arteries and increase blood flow – peaking at 90 minutes after eating – which in theory is good for women’s sexual function. But make it as dark and as bitter as possible: fat and sugar in milk chocolate counteract the flavonoids’ benefits.
Flavonoid-packed onions could also work very well – but the effect on breath might dampen the ardour. Luckily, there is a happy medium in… the humble apple. One Italian study found women who ate apples daily scored significantly higher on an index of overall sexual function than women consuming less than an apple a day – though researchers only counted women who ate unpeeled apples because phytonutrients are concentrated in the peel.
Scientists said their findings could lead to ‘identifying new compounds and food supplements to use in female sexuality recovery’. But until they arrive, you could just try eating an apple.
What else can older women do to improve their sexual desire?
One is to eat soy-based foods. Studies show menopausal women who drink a cup of soy milk every day may have better sex – but be careful what you wish for. One 44-year-old went to her gynaecologist with an ‘increase in desire that required her to self-stimulate to orgasm about 15 times daily’, according to a case report. A month before she had started an almost exclusively soy-based diet, eating more than four pounds of soy food a day.
There are two aromatherapy regimens that may help.
Women who smelled lavender for 20 minutes twice a day for 12 weeks enjoyed a significant improvement in menopausal symptoms, including an increase in sexual desire.
Neroli oil, also called bitter orange, appeared to work even faster. A sniff of just 0.1 per cent concentration of the oil for five minutes twice a day for five days led to a significant increase in sexual desire.
The more orgasms for men the better – but only with their wives!
A study of men in Caerphilly, Wales, found that those with ‘high orgasmic frequency’ appeared to cut their risk of premature death in half – and, apparently, the more, the better. But not if you cheat.
Extramarital sex in men was associated with higher cardiovascular risk – heart attacks – partly because the lover is likely to be younger and more, ahem, exuberant.
Extramarital sex is also more likely to happen after ‘excessive’ drinking or eating, which puts more strain on the heart.
Researchers also concluded that secret sexual encounters may be more stressful and therefore significantly raise blood pressure and heart rate, both of which are risks for cardiovascular events.
Two large analyses of autopsy results have proved it, finding that the majority of sudden deaths among men during coitus took place during extramarital sex.
Now get your brain into tip-top health
Dementia affects one in 11 people older than 65 in the UK, and ‘benign forgetfulness’, such as frequently misplacing your keys, is even more common – but it isn’t inevitable.
Once it was thought that we lose brain cells as we age, but that’s been proved wrong. In old age our brains have about 96 to 98 per cent as many neurons as we had when we were young. So how can we keep them healthy and reduce the risk of dementia?
- Reduce salt. Increased stiffness of the arteries correlated with impaired cognitive performance in 14 studies – and it’s a high sodium intake that causes it. We all eat too much salt, but cutting it by less than a teaspoon a day can significantly reduce artery stiffness, in addition to lowering blood pressure.
- Eat less meat, fried food, baked goods and processed foods packed with bad LDL cholesterol, which is associated with memory loss and brain disease. Humans appear to have evolved to sustain an LDL level of around 0.6 millimoles per litre of blood, but the average in the West is over 3 mmol/l. No wonder heart disease is the leading cause of death in higher income countries and dementia is killer number two.
Sleeping on your right side could ‘drain’ waste products from your brain more effectively, according to Dr Greger’s book
- Sleep more but not too much. Fewer than seven hours a night is thought to increase your risk of cognitive decline, but so is more than eight or nine hours. Seven hours a night doesn’t sound like enough, but it may actually be natural for our species.
- Sleeping on your right side could help. Your position in bed may affect your risk of dementia and lying on your right might be better than on your back or front. That’s because the brain might ‘drain’ waste products more effectively in that position via a major vein running down the right of your body.
One study – the first to find a link – found that people with neurodegenerative disease tend to sleep on their backs: about 72 per cent spent at least two hours sleeping on their back.
Food for brain fitness – and what to avoid
What should you eat to protect your brain and improve your memory? Our old friends berries and green leafy vegetables (spinach has even been referred to as an ‘anti-Alzheimer’s plant’) make a star appearance here.
For example, one study followed the cognition of hundreds of twins over a decade and found that the anthocyanins – a blue or red pigment – in less than 50g of blueberries a day, or around eight large strawberries, seemed to slow cognitive ageing by four years.
Or try cocoa. A chocolate drink containing the flavonoid content of two and a half tablespoons of natural cocoa powder has been shown to significantly raise levels of a neuroprotective protein called BDNF and improve cognitive function. (But make sure it’s natural cocoa and not ‘Dutch-processed’ cocoa, which has been alkalized. Look on the back of the packet for the words ‘acidity regulator’ – if you see that, it’s Dutched).
As for what not to eat, just a few days on a high-fat diet can blunt cognition, which may take weeks to recover from. Even a single high saturated fat meal – a cheeseburger or deep-fried fish and chips – has been shown to impair cognitive performance in people within five hours, perhaps because of the brain inflammation it can cause.
Why not just eat fish to boost brainpower?
It’s commonly thought that fish is brain food, and thanks to doctors recommending them, fish oil pills have exploded into a multi-billion-pound industry.
Yet the most extensive assessment of the evidence found that they gave ‘no appreciable’ cognitive benefit.
Four massive new trials found the same thing, as have three placebo-controlled trials of omega-3 capsules for Alzheimer’s disease over periods of six, 12, and 18 months.
In fact, some studies have found higher fish consumption predicts worse cognitive function, perhaps because of the neurotoxins in fish polluted by heavy metals and plastics in the sea.
Where did we even get this idea that the omega-3 fats in fish and fish oil supplements were good for you?
Probably from one headline-grabbing study in the 1980s that has since been swamped by fresh data disproving it.
Go nuts to cure a low sex drive – but beware of bikes
Two servings of nuts a week has been associated with a decrease in the probability of suffering erectile dysfunction
A man’s beard grows more on the days he has sex than on the days he doesn’t.
For men, sex increases levels of testosterone circulating in the blood – hence the beard growth – though the same effect is not found if he self-pleasures.
Testosterone increases with ‘competitive success’, say researchers, and sex induces the ‘mental state of a winner’, as opposed to the mental state after masturbation.
Eating at least one serving of vegetables a day and more than two servings of nuts a week was associated with a more than 50 per cent decrease in the probability of erectile dysfunction. Men eating three to four handfuls of pistachios, above, a day for just three weeks experienced a significant improvement in blood flow where it matters.
Nitric oxide also allows blood vessels to relax, which is why leafy, nitrate-packed greens might be ‘veggie Viagra’. Fenugreek seeds can also boost testosterone – in one study men who took fenugreek capsules daily reported a doubling of morning erections. The only side effect? It can make your sweat and pee smell like maple syrup.
Watermelon has a compound called citrulline which turns into the amino acid arginine in the body, which combats erectile dysfunction. Five daily servings of red watermelon or a single wedge of yellow flesh watermelon can help the problem.
And regular aerobic exercise can improve erectile function almost as much as the latest Viagra-type drugs – although there is a caveat. Middle-aged men should be aware of the higher risk of erectile dysfunction among cyclists, thanks to repeated compression of nerves in the pelvic region.
Even Shakespeare knew that rosemary improves memory
Just the right amount of rosemary seasoning in your tomato juice could boost your memory in older age
In Hamlet, Ophelia notes that rosemary is for remembrance, an idea that goes back at least a few thousand years to the ancient Greeks, who claimed the fragrant herb ‘comforts the brain… sharpens understanding, restores lost memory, and awakens the mind’.
Well, science has proved them right. Older adults with an average age of 75 were given two cups of tomato juice with either a half teaspoon of powdered, dried rosemary (an amount you might use in a typical recipe), a full teaspoon, two teaspoons and more than a tablespoon.
Compared with a placebo, memory speed improved after the lowest dose, but worsened after the highest dose, suggesting that more isn’t necessarily better.
Or try turmeric, which, in a study in 2012, dramatically improved the symptoms of three people with Alzheimer’s who took a teaspoon a day.
It was so effective it led investigators to conclude this was the first demonstration of an ‘effective and safe drug’ for treating the disease.
Of course, it’s not a drug at all. Turmeric is just a spice you can buy in supermarkets.
© Michael Greger 2023 How Not To Age by Michael Greger (Pan Macmillan, £22). To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid to 09/03/24; UK p&p free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.