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By Sex therapist and relationship counselor
TODAY contributor
updated 6/5/2008 3:49:38 PM ET 2008-06-05T19:49:38

As we age, both men and women take longer to become sexually aroused, and may lose the urgency to have sex they once had. In men, waning testosterone levels can make a guy moody, irritable and depressed, as well as decrease his libido. In women, the hormonal changes of menopause may affect lubrication, arousal, orgasm, and, perhaps most significantly, sex drive.

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But even so, the capacity to have satisfying sexual relationships does not disappear with age. We remain sexual throughout our lives, and many couples find that sex becomes more intense and intimate as they grow older. It’s not as simple as less hormones equals less sex. It’s all about lifestyle — exercise, diet, sleep, and a healthy engagement with life — and the quality of your relationship.

As I’ve talked about over the past few weeks, aging may not affect sex as much as those unhealthy habits that take their toll after too many years. Too much stress, too little sleep, poor eating and exercise habits, and not making the time to nurture ourselves or our relationships can be the most damaging to our sex lives. Letting our overall health fall by the wayside may be the biggest culprit in sexual health woes.

Sex is often slower as we age, which can be a good thing. While younger women may lubricate in as little as a few seconds, in older women it can take up to several minutes to become lubricated. The same pattern applies to men and their erections. It’s important for both sexes to realize that taking longer to become erect or lubricated doesn’t necessarily mean a partner isn’t aroused.

Slower can be better for your sex life. When the physical markers of arousal aren’t instantly obvious, it gives partners more time to play and connect with each other in bed. The behaviors we usually think of as foreplay can become the main event during sex, and give couples the opportunity to rediscover themselves and each other sexually.

For instance, if one position used to do the trick or if sex has always followed a predictable sequence, as it does in many long-term relationships, aging allows couples to shake things up. Maybe she wants to try a vibrator for better arousal (or maybe he does, too). Or perhaps there is a whole world of erotic massage and other techniques that one or both people have been curious about, and now have a reason to introduce into the relationship.

Sex therapist David Schnarch writes about the difference between a person’s genital prime and sexual prime. The genital prime happens for most of us during adolescence and our 20s, when the body is in its best shape and we tend to be more active and, yes, young. However, the mind may not be as well-developed sexually, and Schnarch says that a person’s sexual prime is actually well beyond what most of us think of as the hot-and-heavy sex years — more like middle age than high school. As we age, we benefit from accepting ourselves as we are, knowing what we like and not being afraid to ask for it.

I always like to say that the mind is the biggest sexual organ. By understanding the inevitable changes that occur over the sexual life cycle, and knowing how to deal with them, you can sustain a healthy, satisfying sex life well into your golden years. Keeping a sex-positive attitude and a commitment to overall health is the way to maximize sexuality, whether you’re 30 or 80.

Ian Kerner is a sex therapist, relationship counselor and New York Times best-selling author of numerous books, including the recently published “Sex Detox: A Program to Detoxify and Rejuvenate Your Love Life.” He was born and raised in New York City, where he lives with his wife, two young sons and plump Jack Russell terrier.

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