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Sex & Relationships

By Sheryl Kraft

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With unemployment high and spirits low, most of us weren’t too sorry to say goodbye to 2010. But while much of the country may be looking back at the year with a degree of pessimism, midlife women are looking ahead with surprising optimism. More than three-quarters of women over 35 say their best years are ahead, according to a new survey conducted by the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health (NPWH) and Teva Women’s Health, Inc.

Healthywomen.org spoke with women’s health expert and writer Nancy Monson about the survey’s findings…

What are some of the unexpected findings from this survey?

The main finding is that women view midlife not as a crisis but as a time for reinvention. They’re optimistic about the future in terms of their personal lives. This suggests to me that this is not their mother’s midlife—it’s a new and exciting phase of life when they can re-define and rediscover themselves. It offers an opportunity for women to look at their past choices and figure out what they want to do better in the future. And they have plenty of time to do it, considering that life expectancy is now around 79 to 80 for American women.

How can women make the most of the midlife moment?

They can focus on adopting healthy habits…sleeping enough, eating well, exercising regularly, not smoking, reducing stress, and balancing work and life. Happily, this survey showed 79% of women are doing that.

Since I write a lot about birth control, I was particularly interested to see the survey results that showed that by the age of 35, 59% of women are reluctant to use hormonal methods of contraception and many feel like they need to take a break from hormones. Sixty-seven percent (or 4 of 5 women) say they feel healthier when they’re not taking hormones. A quarter of women actually stop using any method at all at midlife—that’s tricky, though, because they’re still fertile and they could get pregnant unexpectedly, which could reinvent them in a way they didn’t anticipate!

I think one of the reasons women don’t use a method is they (A) don’t think it’s likely they’ll get pregnant at this stage of the game and (B) they don’t recognize how many options they actually have. There are excellent hormonal methods out there, like the Pill and a vaginal ring, but there are also excellent nonhormonal methods, like the ParaGard intrauterine contraceptive (IUC), which is hassle-free and very effective. Your healthcare provider places it in the uterus during a regular office visit and you get up to 10 years of birth control from it (although you can have it taken out earlier if you want). You don’t have to worry about birth control on a daily or weekly basis, which is really appealing. It also has less of an impact on the environment than the Pill because you don’t have to discard the packaging every month.

What did the survey show about sex and the midlife woman?

It’s a misconception that midlife women aren’t interested in sex: The survey found that 65% of women want to maintain a healthy sex life—and a third even initiate sex with their partner.

By the way, a lot of the latest research on female sexuality suggests that women have a different sexual response model than men: they approach sex in a much more circuitous and much less direct manner than men. Most importantly, women may not feel desire for sex until they’re already aroused—they may have a hard time flipping the switch from everyday life to feeling amorous, but if they’re open to being romantic with their partner, they may find themselves unexpectedly in the mood for sex more often. 

What tips do you have for improving your overall health—how can you make responsible choices now so you can reap the benefits later?

The choices we make in midlife will dictate our health for the rest of our lives. We want to talk to our healthcare providers about the preventive health exams we should be having as individuals, try and get five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, maintain a healthy weight, get some exercise, not smoke…all of those things we hear about every day. 

I play tennis with a woman who is in her 60s and she is such a role model for me: She’s very active and engaged, she eats really well, she plays tennis several times a week—she runs for more tennis balls then I do—and she plays bridge. I want to be like her as I age.

What are some easy ways to ensure the health of the world around you?

The survey showed that about 3 out of 4 women are thinking more about how their actions impact the environment than they did when they were younger. So they’re doing things like recycling, not littering, and using eco-friendly bags and green products.

Personally, I think one of the best things we can do to help ourselves and others is to connect with people through groups or activities. I like the idea of performing random acts of kindness, volunteering and thinking about others and not just ourselves. That creates good karma!

Nancy Monson is an award-winning author with articles on a broad range of women’s health and lifestyle topics published in such magazines as Family Circle, Glamour, More, Reader’s Digest, Redbook, Shape and Woman’s Day. She has published two books advising women on how to reduce their stress and increase their energy, including Craft to Heal, a self-help book about the therapeutic benefits of pursuing a craft or hobby you love.