May 7, 1996 in Features

As Many Men Age, Sexual Potency Becomes An Issue

Gail Sheehy Universal Press Syn
 

About half of American men over 40 have experienced middle-life impotence to varying degrees.

Hard statistical evidence reveals for the first time how widespread this phenomenon really is. In 1993, the federally financed Massachusetts Male Aging Study took a cross-sectional random sample of 1,709 men between 40 and 70 years of age from 11 different communities in Massachusetts and asked them a variety of questions about their sexual potency during the previous six months.

The men’s self-reports showed the steepest change was in the onset of moderate impotence, meaning a problem with attaining and maintaining an erection half the time. If those numbers are extrapolated to the national male population of the same age group (more than 37 million men in 1994), the current estimate that 10 million men are suffering from impotence would have to be doubled.

Consider: Problems of declining sexual potency may already affect 19 million men in the United States.

In Britain, current estimates are just as startling, according to a 1993 study of 802 older men. Even among men who were still sexually active, almost half complained of poor erections since they had turned 50. The study estimated that nearly a third of all British men over the age of 50 do not have sexual intercourse.

It is a universal phenomenon that male sexual function ebbs with age. Does this mean that a man should expect the decline and fall of the phallus as a natural insult brought on by aging?

No, the decline is gradual, and in a man without major physical problems, there is enough of a threshold of male sex hormone to allow him to have satisfactory sexual functioning well into his 70s, and for some men well beyond.

In younger men psychological stress is the primary cause of impotence, says Dr. Tom Lue of the University of California, San Francisco, one of the top urologists in the United States. In men over 55, he finds, the root cause of impotence is usually physical - anything that interferes with the blood and oxygen supply to the penis.

“Even men whose testosterone level is perfectly normal experience a definite slowdown,” found Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, the (now deceased) psychiatrist and sex researcher who first identified the syndrome of low sexual desire back in 1979.

Two major studies on the incidence of impotence show that the big jump occurs around age 60. By 70, among men in the Massachusetts study, the prevalence of complete impotence tripled to 15 percent. But it’s important to underscore that there is a robust population of gray-templed men who survive this potential crisis with their egos and erectile tissues intact.

The Massachusetts study found that 40 percent of these normal, healthy males remained completely potent at age 70. Thus, although impotence is definitely age-related, much is not explained by aging alone.

People have always equated sexual potency with power and continue to do so today. As a result, the slightest hint of diminishing sexual performance can create performance anxiety. After the first few times a man has problems, he becomes anxious, is flooded with shame, and shame almost certainly will bring on the dreaded sexual deflation.

Men who are afraid to perform pull away from intimacy. They become socially isolated and after a while they develop the “habit of impotence.” And once a man develops the habit of impotence, it is extremely hard to break.

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The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Gail Sheehy Universal Press Syndicate

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