Having sex more often might cause you to reach menopause at a later age, according to an intriguing new study.
The new study, which was published in Royal Society Open Science, analyzed data from 2,936 women drawn from 11 waves of the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation (a longitudinal study conducted in the US). Researchers discovered that women who said they had sex weekly were 28% less likely to go through menopause than women who had sex less than once a month.
“We noticed that in existing menopause literature, there was a trend of married women experiencing menopause later—which seemed weird to us,” Megan Arnot, the lead study author and a PhD candidate in evolutionary anthropology at University College London, tells Health. “Not many people had tried to explain this association, and I thought that perhaps it was adaptive in response to sexual frequency, so we decided to test that.”
Wait—what is menopause, exactly?
Menopause is a normal part of getting older. It specifically defines a point in time 12 months after a woman has her last period, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). During the menopausal transition (aka perimenopause), which is the years leading up to menopause, a woman might experience changes in her period, hot flashes, moodiness, and other symptoms, as her body produces less estrogen. The average age a woman in the U.S. reaches menopause is 51.
Why might having more sex cause you to go through menopause at a later age?
The study didn’t explore this, but Arnot has some theories. “It might be that women who are perimenopausal don’t feel like having sex,” she says. But, she adds, “It might be that there’s a trade-off between continued ovulation and stopping." In other words, if you’re not having sex, then you’re not going to get pregnant, Arnot points out, “so there’d be little point in maintaining ovulatory function.”
Ovulation also requires a lot of energy from the body, and that can lower immune function, says Arnot. “So there may be a point in life where it’s better off to stop ovulating and invest your energy elsewhere if you’re not going to have a baby (because you’re not having sex),” she says.
So, can having more sex stave off menopause?
Not necessarily. Study co-author Ruth Mace, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at University College London, is quick to point out that this is a link—not proof that having sex in your forties and fifties will push back menopause. “We controlled for a wide range of variables, including estrogen hormone levels, smoking, and BMI, and the association remains, but that does not mean that sexual behavior necessarily delays menopause,” she tells Health.
Given that sex can change hormone levels, it’s possible that this is the case, she says. Or, she adds, “it could be a third variable, like other hormone levels that we did not have data on.”
But Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale University Medical School (who was not involved in the new study), says she has “great doubts biologically” that having sex regularly would push back menopause. “The best correlation I know is family history—if mom and sisters went through menopause later, you will likely go through menopause later,” she tells Health.
However, Dr. Minkin says, it may simply be that women who go into menopause later feel more comfortable having sex in the time leading up to menopause. “Certainly the later one goes into menopause would imply there is more estrogen around to keep the vagina comfortable, and I unfortunately certainly see plenty of postmenopausal women unable to have sex because of vaginal dryness and pain,” she says.
There's more to menopause than genetics, points out Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando, Florida (who was not involved in the study). "Just because your mother may have undergone menopause at a certain age, that doesn't necessarily mean that you'll follow in those footsteps," she tells Health. "There's a lot we're still trying to figure out about menopause and I think anything is possible."
Having regular sex during the perimenopausal and menopausal period can also help make sex less painful with time because it helps keep the vagina open, she points out—so sex sessions on the regular certainly can't hurt.
To get our top sexual health stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Health Hookup newsletter