Sexual dysfunction in the older woman: an overview of the current understanding and management

Kathleen E Walsh, Jennifer R Berman
Drugs & Aging 2004, 21 (10): 655-75
Sexuality is one of the most important quality of life issues for both men and women. Sexual dysfunction is a highly prevalent, age-related and progressive problem. The various physiological and psychological changes that occur with aging can have a significant impact on sexual function. The complexity of female sexual dysfunction remains distinct from that of a man. Thus, we cannot approach female patients or their sexual function problems in a similar fashion to that of male patients. A woman's motivation and ability to find and respond to sexual stimuli is largely influenced by her emotional intimacy with her partner. Frequently, the emotional and relationship well-being a woman experiences contributes more to her sexual enjoyment than does her physiological response. However, it is imperative to assess for possible physiological barriers a woman may have which impede a healthy and satisfying sexual life. Therefore, a comprehensive approach, addressing both the physiological and psychological factors is instrumental to the evaluation of female patients with sexual complaints. After years of ardent research and recent therapeutic advances in male sexual dysfunction, researchers have begun addressing the intricacy of female sexual complaints. Studies involving both pre- and postmenopausal women have reported that most women do experience some type of sexual dysfunction during their lifetime. The sexual complaints women experience in their younger years may follow them into older adulthood, but often times change considerably because of various age-related changes. In an effort to assist researchers and clinicians in designing studies and implementing appropriate evaluation and treatment options for women with sexual complaints, a classification system for female sexual dysfunction has been designed. The four categories of female dysfunction include: hypoactive sexual desire disorder, sexual arousal disorder, orgasmic disorder and sexual pain disorders. Evaluation of women with sexual complaints should include a detailed psychological, social and medical history and thorough physical examination including a hormonal profile. Current treatment options are dependent on the diagnosis and include physical therapy, psychological counselling, hormonal supplements, medication changes and sexual devices. There has also been a burgeoning interest in investigational medications for female sexual dysfunction, from centrally acting (e.g. serotonin agonists) to peripheral, localised treatment (e.g. vasodilating creams). The area of female sexuality and sexual dysfunction has been undergoing important critical changes within the last 10 years. Researchers and clinicians are continuing to recognise the need to try and understand both the psychological and physiological aspects of the female sexual experience and how they influence one another.

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