What's love got to do with memory? A new study shows that maintaining intimacy and deep emotional connections to a partner as a person ages could help bolster your brain health.
According to a 2018 study, conducted at the University of Wollongong in Australia, participants who reported having a healthy sex life over a period of two years performed better on memory tests than those who did not. Over 6,000 people over the age of 50 took part in the study, filling out a survey at the beginning of the study in 2012, then reporting back in 2014. Their memory was tested at the beginning of the study and again after the two years.
Overall, study author Mark Allen found that memory declined in everyone over the two years, but those who reported emotional and physical intimacy performed best on memory tests. And the older participants were, the more intimacy factored in. “The association between sexual activity and memory performance was stronger among older participants in the sample,” wrote Allen.
The study was based on evidence that sexual activities improved episodic memory in animals. Episodic memory is the recall of a sequence of events—what you had for lunch yesterday, for example, or remembering details of a close family member’s wedding—and it’s one of the first things Alzheimer’s patients have trouble with. Researchers believe that sex can stimulate the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. In one study on rats, sexual activity was associated with more neuron growth in the hippocampus, and another study found that it protected the hippocampus from the effects of chronic stress.
The results of this study on humans did not show an effect on long-term memory, however, and the activity was self-reported. Still, most research points to maintaining strong social and familial connections as possibly helping to prevent cognitive decline and dementia.
This study was published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.