Regular sex “key” to happy marriage for seniors?

Posted on December 23, 2011

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Dateline: 21 November 2011 // Posted by: Catherine Stokes
Source: Yahoo! News, HealthDay

Story: “Regular Sex May Be Key to Happy Marriage for Seniors”

Summary: A study using responses from the 2004 version of the General Social Survey claims that senior adults (people aged 65 and over) who have an active sex life have happier marriages and are happier with life in general.  The findings were based on answers to the questions, “About how many times did you have sex during the last 12 months?”;  “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”; “Taking things all together, how would you describe your marriage? Would you say that your marriage is very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?

Statistically speaking, the study reports that 60% of those who said they had sex more than once a month reported being happy with life in general, compared to 40% who had no sex in the last year.  Also, 80% of those who had sex more than once a month said they were happy with their marriage, compared to 59% who had no sex in the last year.

Adrienne Jackson, the author of the study, is quoted as saying that, “Highlighting the relationship between sex and happiness will help us in developing and organizing specific sexual-health interventions for this growing segment of our population.

Why is this PseudoNews? This is PseudoNews because it is making a claim based on results from a general survey that wasn’t necessarily designed to measure what was being claimed in the study.  While the General Social Survey does provide useful information for studies, it should not be used as the only source of measurement.  It is easy to pull the numbers from the results and to show that there is a correlation, but the article doesn’t provide a very strong scientific argument to support the claim.  It is also evident in the title of the article itself when it says that sex “may” be the key to happiness.

The claim made in the quote from the author of the study also makes quite a leap from such general survey results.  It seems she is basically saying that in order for senior adults to be happy, they should just simply start having more sex, which can easily be accomplished through interventions by doctors and psychologists.  However, this doesn’t take into account individual factors like health, physical ability, or even if people place the value of their happiness on an active sex life.

Finally, just because there is an association between the two factors, doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other.  An active sex life could create more happiness in marriage and life in general, or it’s possible that people who are happier just have more sex.  Or it could be a combination of several factors.  It seems erroneous to state that an active sex life is the “key” to happiness, simply based on these results.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? The first glaring feature of pseudoscience displayed here is science by press conference.  The findings were first presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.  There is even a disclaimer at the end of the article that says that the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, yet the website decided to still present it as news.

It also demonstrates vagueness of measurement, since the study is based on results from questions taken from a self-report survey.  The questions themselves are very subjective, and “happiness” is not something that can be easily measured precisely.  Even the question regarding sexual frequency could be open to interpretation, and 12 months could be a long time for a person to remember.

Another feature of pseudoscience shown is lack of parsimony.  To make a claim based on a few questions from a general survey can be misleading.  It is possible that the people who responded to the survey may be happier because of a more active sex life.  But that is assuming that all seniors place the value of happiness on nothing but sex.  It also doesn’t take into account factors such as physical abilities and events that occur in old age.  It’s possible that some of the participants could be widowed, which doesn’t necessarily mean they have less sex, but it would make the question of a happy marriage inapplicable.  Also some older people may simply be unable to perform sexually due to illness or old age.  Those factors alone could cause unhappiness, and not necessarily the lack of sex.

The moral of the story: Every individual is going to have his or her own idea of happiness, and it’s reasonable to believe that an active sex life does provide happiness for many people.  However, to claim that it is the main key to happiness in life and marriage, especially in old age, is not something that can be easily shown scientifically.

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