Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.
There is ample evidence to support the value of a satisfying sex life for a couple’s relationship, not to mention for each partner's happiness. Most recently, researchers have found that people’s happiness levels rise on the days after they’ve had sexual activity with their partner. Now, as it turns out, there may be an added advantage to being sexually active: University of California San Francisco’s Tomás Cabeza de Baca and colleagues (2017) discovered the benefits of sexual activity to the body’s cells — and this cellular advantage could increase your lifespan.
To provide background for this remarkable finding, we need to explore the specific cellular mechanism that the UCSF team investigated. They focused on the telomeres, the set of proteins in the cell’s nucleus that stabilize the ends of the chromosomes. Telomeres contain no genetic coding, but serve as a cushion for the part of the chromosome that does contain genes. Each time the cell reproduces, or when it is placed under stress, it loses some of these protective proteins. With the loss of telomeres, the chromosomes get shorter and shorter until, eventually, there is no protection for the genes that count. It’s as if you had split ends on your hair that keep breaking apart on a daily basis through brushing or pulling. Eventually, you’ll lose more than the ends of the hair through this damaging process.
In the case of telomeres, then, longer is better. The telomere theory actually proposes that it’s these tiny structures that are the culprit in our ageing process and which ultimately lead to life’s ending. As more and more cells are damaged in the ordinary routine of cellular replication throughout the body, the less able they are to perform their functions in the body. You might think that the fix to ageing would be easy: Just give people a drug that will reverse the telomere-shortening process. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t work, because the same drug that would slow telomere shrinking would increase cancer risk. The enzyme that participates in telomere destruction is telomerase, and reversing its activity through chemical intervention can have this undesirable outcome.
According to Cabeza de Baca et al., there may be a more pleasant, less risky fix for premature shortening of the telomeres. Prior to conducting their study, the researchers reasoned that telomere attrition could be slowed through social support and good relationships. Among older adults, these beneficial connections are associated with longer telomere length. Conversely, ambivalent or outright negative relationships could have a detrimental effect on telomeres. Adding further support to the role of relationships in telomere length, people who are divorced or separated also have less of these protective endings on their chromosomes. Focusing on the sexual activity component of the equation, the UCSF researchers proposed to investigate the connection between the presence of sexual activity and relationship satisfaction on longer telomeres and lower levels of telomerase, the chemical that contributes to telomere shortening.
To test this remarkable proposition, Cabeza de Baca and colleagues collected data from a sample of 129 women already participating in a long-term project known as the “Stress, Ageing, and Emotions” (SAGE) study. All of the women were married or partnered, and all were mothers, raising children with autism spectrum disorder or considered “neurotypical.” The purpose of the SAGE study in general is to investigate stress among these two groups of mothers, and to do so the research team gathered data on a variety of physiological indicators, as well as relationship quality measures. For each day in a one-week portion of the study, participants reported on their relationship quality via a measure of dyadic adjustment and made daily reports of positive versus negative interactions with their partners. They also stated whether they had sexual activity the day before or not. Additionally, participants indicated their levels of stress on a day-to-day basis. Telomere data were collected via blood samples obtained in the middle of this one-week diary data collection.
The average age of the women in the sample was 42; most (78 percent) were white; and most had a college or higher education. About one-third reported that they had sexual activity within the week. Taking into account a variety of factors, such as the age of participants, their body mass index, reports of symptoms and health behaviours, and perceived stress, the findings revealed that the only measured factor related to telomere length was sexual activity. Relationship quality was unrelated to telomere length, but the sexual activity-telomere connection held firm even when controlling for whether participants perceived their relationship in a positive or negative light.
To account for this result, which was not completely expected, the authors propose that sexual activity, regardless of its perceived quality, may have protective benefits on telomeres via a dampening of the stress response, buffering against daily stresses experienced in the workplace, or, at a more basic level, stimulating the beneficial hormone oxytocin. It is also possible, though, that the healthier women in the sample were also the ones more likely to be engaging in sexual activity.
Though the findings were correlational in nature, and the measures were self-reported and not necessarily all that well refined, this remains the first study of its kind to examine the role of sexual activity, and not just relationship quality, to a basic index of the ageing process. Further, as the authors point out, they investigated only long-term, committed relationships. Different results may occur among participants having short-term or uncommitted sex.
In a long-term, committed relationship, according to the UCSF team, it’s possible that a host of factors combine to produce the correlation between frequency of sexual activity and telomere length as an index of physiological ageing. In the words of the authors, “The context of high relationship satisfaction, coupled with sexual intimacy, may produce a physiological milieu that bolsters health” (p. 51).
The study’s findings don’t suggest that you should run out and have sex as often as possible in order to ensure your telomeres will remain in good shape. The findings also don’t mean that sexual activity needs to be defined as intercourse alone. It’s the entire atmosphere of a fulfilling relationship, as perhaps indicated by frequent physical intimacy, that may help slow down the ageing process.
Written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne. First appeared on Psychology Today.