Frequent sex might enhance our performance on certain cognitive tasks. A growing body of research on both humans and animals published in the last decade points to this conclusion, including a new study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Here’s a look at the accumulated evidence and what it suggests about how sex might benefit the brain.
First, a 2010 study published in the journal PLoS ONE discovered a link between sexual activity and neuron growth in male rats. Specifically, rats that were permitted to have sex daily over a two-week period demonstrated more neuron growth than rats that were only allowed to have sex once during the same amount of time.
Building on this, a 2013 study published in the journal Hippocampus — which also focused on male rats — found that daily sexual activity was not only associated with the generation of more new neurons, but also with enhanced cognitive function.
Research on humans has yielded similar findings. A 2016 study published in Age and Aging looked at how the sexual practices of nearly 7,000 adults aged 50-89 related to their performance on a number sequencing task (which measured executive functions, such as problem-solving) and a word recall task (which measured memory ability). It turned out that both men and women who had engaged in any kind of sex over the past year had higher scores on the word recall test. Furthermore, for men only, being sexually active was linked to better performance on the number sequencing task.
Likewise, a 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior examined how sexual activity was linked to performance on a common memory task in a sample of 78 heterosexual women aged 18-29. Specifically, scientists looked at whether their frequency of sexual intercourse was associated with memory while controlling for several other factors, such as grade point average, menstrual cycle phase, oral contraceptive use, and relationship length. The results revealed that women who engaged in more frequent sexual intercourse had better recall of abstract words on the test.
Last but not least, a new study out this year (also in the Archives of Sexual Behavior) that involved approximately 6,000 adults age 50 and over explored how sexual frequency was associated with performance on two episodic memory tasks administered two years apart. Participants who had sex more often had better performance on the memory test. It’s worth noting that more emotional closeness during sex was linked to better memory performance, too. However, it’s important to point out that memory performance declined for everyone over the course of the study and being sexually active did not prevent this decline. What this means is that while sex is linked to a higher baseline for memory performance, it doesn’t necessarily prevent cognitive decline in older age: We’ll all experience it at some point, whether we’re sexually active or not.
As always, more research is necessary, especially research that can help to establish cause-and-effect in humans and that explores what actually happens in the brain in response to frequent sex. That said, the overall pattern of findings to date is consistent with the idea that sex may very well be beneficial for our brains and our cognitive performance.
Leuner, B., Glasper, E. R., & Gould, E. (2010). Sexual experience promotes adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus despite an initial elevation in stress hormones. PLoS One, 5(7), e11597.
Glasper, E. R., & Gould, E. (2013). Sexual experience restores age‐related decline in adult neurogenesis and hippocampal function. Hippocampus, 23(4), 303-312.
Wright, H., & Jenks, R. A. (2016). Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitive function in older age. Age and Aging, 45(2), 313-317.
Maunder, L., Schoemaker, D., & Pruessner, J. C. (2017). Frequency of Penile–Vaginal Intercourse is Associated with Verbal Recognition Performance in Adult Women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 441-453.
Allen, M. S. (2018). Sexual Activity and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior.