Sexual activity and cognitive decline in older age: a prospective cohort study

  • Lee SmithEmail author
  • Igor Grabovac
  • Lin Yang
  • Guillermo F. López-Sánchez
  • Joe Firth
  • Damiano Pizzol
  • Daragh McDermott
  • Nicola Veronese
  • Sarah E. Jackson
Original Article



To explore the association between sexual activity and change in cognitive function over 4 years in a representative sample of older adults in England.


Data were from 1963 men and 2513 women participating in Wave 6 (2012/2013) and Wave 8 (2016/2017) of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Participants reported whether or not they had engaged in any sexual activity in the last year. Cognitive function was assessed with tests of immediate and delayed recall. Adjusted general linear models were used to test associations between sexual activity and changes in cognitive function.


Men who were sexually active at baseline had better preservation in immediate (0.18 points, 95% CI 0.07–0.29, p = 0.002) and delayed recall (0.19 points, 95% CI 0.08–0.29, p = 0.001) over 4-year follow-up. No significant associations were observed for women.


Strengths of this study include large, representative sample, longitudinal design and adjustment for a wide range of potential confounders. The observational nature of our study means we cannot deduce the exact direction of effect of our findings. In addition, cognitive ability test scores in older people may reflect not only a possible decline, but also their peak prior cognitive ability; but we did not have any information regarding the trajectories of their cognitive function during the lifespan.


Health practitioners should be encouraged to screen older men relating to their sexual activity to identify those who may be at risk of cognitive decline. Older men will be heartened to know that sexual activity may aid in the prevention of age-related decline in cognition.


Sexual activity Cognitive function Older adults ELSA 




Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

Statement of human and animal rights

This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lee Smith
    • 1
    Email author
  • Igor Grabovac
    • 2
  • Lin Yang
    • 3
  • Guillermo F. López-Sánchez
    • 4
  • Joe Firth
    • 5
  • Damiano Pizzol
    • 6
  • Daragh McDermott
    • 7
  • Nicola Veronese
    • 8
  • Sarah E. Jackson
    • 9
  1. 1.The Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise SciencesAnglia Ruskin UniversityCambridgeUK
  2. 2.Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Centre for Public HealthMedical University of ViennaViennaAustria
  3. 3.Department of Epidemiology, Center for Public HealthMedical University of ViennaViennaAustria
  4. 4.Faculty of Sport SciencesUniversity of MurciaMurciaSpain
  5. 5.NICM Health Research InstituteUniversity of Western SydneySydneyAustralia
  6. 6.Italian Agency for Development CooperationJerusalemIsrael
  7. 7.Division of Psychology, School of Psychology and Sports SciencesAnglia Ruskin UniversityCambridgeUK
  8. 8.National Research Council, Neuroscience Institute, Aging BranchPaduaItaly
  9. 9.Department of Behavioural Science and HealthUCLLondonUK

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