Can Sex Delay Menopause? Here's what We Know

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Women who participate in sexual activity more frequently may have a lower risk for early menopause, a new study claims.

Those who had sex monthly were 19 percent less likely to experience menopause compared with those who had sex less than monthly.

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Helena Harder, PhD, research fellow at the University of Sussex, noted that the data is from a large, valid source, but believes more research is needed to understand the link — and define it.

“It is a link and the researchers can only speculate about possible causes for this link,” she said, citing that there could be causes for the link not mentioned in the report.

The study only included premenopausal women ages 42 to 52 at the first follow- up. It excluded women with early menopause, which is defined as before age 40, Jennifer Marino, PhD, a reproductive epidemiologist, told ishonest.

“I think, even should this association eventually be shown to be causative, women should probably decide how often to have partnered sex based on how often they and their partners would like to have sex, rather than in an attempt to change the timing of their menopausal transition,” she said.

Decoding the data

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Data in the study comes from interviews with 2,936 women in the USA’s Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN).

The mean age of respondents was 45 years old. Other demographic information of study respondents includes:

  • on average, respondents had two children
  • 48 percent were non-Hispanic Caucasians educated above the high school level
  • 78 percent were married or in a relationship
  • 68 percent were living with their partner

At the time of the first interview, none of them were in menopause but 46 percent were in early perimenopause, indicated by changes in period cycles and hot flashes. About 54 percent were premenopausal, having regular cycles with no perimenopause or menopause symptoms.

The researchers interviewed the women over a 10-year span. During that time, 45 percent of the women had natural menopause at the average age of 52.

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They controlled for estrogen levels, education, BMI, race, smoking habits, age at first occurrence of menstruation, how old the women were during their first interview, and overall health.

The team wanted to know whether living with a male partner affected menopause but didn’t find a correlation if a male was in the house or not.

Why the link?

“Ovulation is a costly process both in terms of energy and due to the fact it worsens immune function,” she told ishonest.

“When approaching midlife, there may be a trade-off between continued ovulation and the likelihood of becoming pregnant, with sexual frequency serving as the cue of possible pregnancy,” she added. “Mechanistically, it is likely something to do with estrogen, but we don’t know the exact pathway.”

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Arnot contended that there may be a biological energetic trade-off between investing energy into ovulation and investing elsewhere, such as keeping active by looking after grandchildren.

Ceasing fertility to invest more time in family is known as the “grandmother hypothesis.” The basis of this is that menopause originally evolved in humans to reduce reproductive conflict between different generations of females, and now allows them to increase their inclusive fitness through investing in their grandchildren.

Sexual frequency is just one possible link, Dr. Holly N. Thomas, an assistant professor at University of Pittsburgh, told ishonest. She pointed out that the medical community already knows women with poorer health are less sexually active, and they tend to experience menopause at younger ages.

Non-smokers and those with a higher education level are also associated with a later menopause age. Those things, not just frequency of sex, can be considered if women are looking to delay menopause.

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“Women who are having frequent sex because they enjoy it can consider this a potential fringe benefit,” she said. “Women who are having sex less frequently should not necessarily worry.”

Evidence has shown that healthy sexuality is important for overall health and quality of life, noted Sheryl A. Kingsberg, PhD, who heads up behavioral medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

However, Kingsberg doesn’t want to see women who struggle with premature menopause or other reproductive issues to think that having more sex could have preserved their fertility.

Delay: Yea or nay?

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“Women shouldn’t think that if they engage in more sex it will definitely delay menopause,” Arnot said. “This simply shows there is an association, and more research is required to uncover the causal pathway.”

Having a healthy sex life is good for us, and making changes to improve it may benefit our overall health and quality of life, noted Dr. Stephanie S. Faubion, medical director of the North American Menopause Society.

“But will it guarantee later menopause? No,” Faubion added.

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