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SEX, ABSTINENCE AND LONGEVITY
November 15th, 2008
A boom in life expectancy shows the number of centenarians has increased 90-fold since 1911. People are now reaching old age in much better health and have a far better standard of living than previous generations. Now scientists can talk about the super- centenarians-those over 110years. With such a boom in the centenarian population, it is not surprising that the ‘secrets’ of how people live to be 100 also abound. Reports of interviews of centenarians have helped to further disseminate such secrets. From avoiding fatty foods, through daily ingestion of olive oil to the various doctrines of physical exercise enthusiasts, we are bombarded with secrets of the Shangri La. But has anybody tried abstinence from sex for 105 years? Yes, that’s right, 105 years without marriage and without sex. Well guess what, Clara Meadmore who recently celebrated her 105th birthday says no sex is the secret to her long life. Well, I would never have guessed; of all things…But I suppose the woman has earned the right to tell us what her opinion is regarding her longevity and who can blame her? Living to be 105 years is no mean feat but doing it unmarried and a virgin the whole time is quite another story.

If Clara is even remotely right, that would be bad news for most of mankind, for truly, I know of very few people who can hold themselves up to such a standard. But really, how does Clara’s claim stand up to scientific scrutiny? Does staying unmarried and abstaining from sex for a lifetime guarantee the 100 year mark?

Neuropsychologist Dr David Weeks in his book Secrets of the Superyoung indicates that sex three times a week between long-term partners makes them look up to seven years younger, partly because of increased growth hormone. Sex at the same frequency outside a stable relationship, however, was found to age single women. Sex outside marriage proves to be bereft of health-promoting effects. Dr Weeks’ study group interviewed 95 people in the south-east of Scotland who looked very young for their age and compared their lifestyle with a similar number whose appearance roughly matched their years to reach their conclusions. They further state “like a number of other stimulating sensations, sex releases a group of substances in the brain, among them the beta-endorphins, natural painkillers that can also alleviate anxiety. The major advantages arise from improved circulation, bone strength and immune-system functions as a more favorable muscle-to-fat ratio in the body, caused by a small rise in the growth hormone."

But how does this translate into mortality or longevity for that matter? Are the unmarried more likely to die? Mortality rates are generally lower for married individuals. Some scientists have observed that this relationship holds in 16 developed countries. Several reasons have been put forward to explain this observation: that marriage may reduce stress and stress-related illness (perhaps as a result of greater social integration), that marriage may encourage healthy types of behavior, and discourage risky or unhealthy ones (drinking, substance abuse, etc) and that a spouse also makes it more likely that the individual receives adequate care in times of illness.

One study found that the beneficial effect of marriage on longevity is substantial. “After controlling for health status, a married male is predicted to be -6.1 percent less likely to die over the period 1993 to 2000. The excess mortality of the unmarried is here similar to that of a smoker (5.8 percent)… Exactly how marriage works its magic remains mysterious. Perhaps a strong personal relationship improves mental health and helps the individual to ward off physical illness.” The study was conducted by Oswald and Gardner of the University of Warwick in the UK and published in August 2002.

So there you have it. Certainly not an exhaustive exposition on the subject but my search drives me to the conclusion that scientists are inclined to believe that being in a stable and healthy marriage and enjoying sex in that context prolongs your life.
So what about Madam Meadmore’s assertion? Anecdotal if you ask me. Scientific evidence seems to suggest that she probably will live even much longer than she already has in a stable healthy marriage. And who knows, in this age of centenarians and supercentenarians, a marriage proposal may not be long in coming. Hopefully, Clara has now settled down from her busy schedule to consider at least one last proposal on the string of the many she has previously turned down.

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