Lack of sexual interest may indicate an increased risk of early death among men living in Japan, according to a recently published study.
The exact relationship between mortality and libido is something researchers have to tease apart, although researchers speculate that decreased sex drive may be a more visible sign of subtle underlying health problems.
The data came from 20,969 people (8,558 men and 12,411 women) aged 40 or older who underwent annual health checks over six years in Yamagata Prefecture, a mountainous region of Japan known for its hot springs, temples and natural beauty.
A team of researchers from Yamagata University looked at subjects’ levels of sexual interest as self-reported in an initial questionnaire, and in a follow-up survey conducted years later. Of the original 20,969 subjects, 503 had passed away by that time.
The researchers found that cancer mortality and all-cause mortality were significantly higher for men who reported a lack of sexual interest.
That association held even when they controlled for factors such as age, hypertension, diabetes, smoking, alcohol consumption, BMI, education, marital status, frequency of laughter and psychological distress.
“Although sexual activity and sexual satisfaction are considered beneficial for psychological health and well-being in older groups, the relationship between sexual interest and longevity has not been investigated,” write the researchers.
“This study is the first to prospectively examine associations between sexual interest and all-cause mortality, and cardiovascular and cancer mortality in a community-based population.”
The study found that women were more likely than men to report a lack of sexual interest — 16 percent of female participants in their sample did so, compared to 8 percent of male volunteers — but it did not find a significant link between lower libido and mortality in women who in men.
Since it is a purely observational study, there is no way to conclude which – if any of the factors – is the cause and which is the effect.
It is possible that the lack of sexual interest among men may be linked to “unhealthy lifestyles,” the researchers suggest.
“In addition, if we hypothesize that sexual interest is related to positive psychological factors,” they write, “the absence of interest may affect a variety of inflammatory, neuroendocrine, and immune responses.”
More research will be needed to understand exactly what’s going on, but just revealing a potential connection like this is an important step, the researchers add.
There are also some important caveats to note in the study. A person’s lack of sexual interest was determined from a single question on the initial baseline questionnaire: “At the moment, do you have any interest in people of the opposite sex?”
While everyone understands what that question is asking, it excludes those who are attracted to someone of the same sex, as the researchers acknowledge.
“Any person who answered ‘no’ was defined as lacking sexual interest. Consequently, sexual interest in someone of the same gender would be considered ‘lacking sexual interest’ in this study,” they write.
The researchers estimate that their sample may have included approximately 200 LGBTQ participants, and because of the narrow question used in this study, there is reason to doubt at least some of this data. The study’s authors call for future research to take this into account.
The new study also did not adjust for certain “medically relevant elements known to affect sexual function and longevity,” the authors write, such as neurological conditions or medications the subjects were taking, since that was not part of the baseline study.
Nevertheless, maintaining sexual interest can only have positive effects on longevity. Despite the study’s limitations, the researchers argue for increasing awareness of sexual interest as a factor in public health among older populations in Japan.
“The Canadian government, through public health promotion materials, has begun to support sexual activity as one element of an ‘aging well’ agenda. In Japan, there are more prejudices about sex among the elderly than in the Western world,” author the study. write.
“We hope our findings will help promote public health through the promotion of sexuality in Japan.”
The study was published in the journal PLOS One.