Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Hamza Butt.

Healthy aging is not only about our physical health, but also our emotional and social wellbeing.

Interestingly, sometimes it all overlaps and our physical, social and emotional wellbeing depend on each other: An important part of healthy aging, we call this “social connectedness.”

Are we participating in our community with lots of friends and interests? Do we share with our partners our issues and share intimacy as we grow older? There is a growing understanding that relationships, interests, things we embrace passionately and participate in with others have an impact on the brain, general health and cardiac health. Loneliness has been linked to health risks and is being evaluated as a risk similar to smoking.

Intimacy is an integral part of our emotional and physical wellbeing. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Ryan.

I just returned from the International Menopause Meetings, held this year in Vancouver. This was an excellent conference that featured a number of talks about the Genital Urinary Syndrome of Menopause (GSM), including issues of Vulvar Vaginal Atrophy (VVA).

Vaginal atrophy (VA) is a common, but treatable, condition affecting post-menopausal women. VA is where the vaginal walls become thin, fragile and inflamed due to the reduction of estrogen that naturally occurs during menopause. Its symptoms include: burning, itching, dryness, irritation and painful intercourse.

According to a recent study, not only is VA causing physical discomfort, but it’s also causing emotional distance between couples because of the difficulty women have discussing it with their partners.

Intimacy does not need to be sacrificed

The CLOSER study (CLarifying Vaginal Atrophy’s Impact on SEx and Relationships), conducted in nine countries, including Canada, surveyed more than 1,000 Canadian post-menopausal women and their male partners, and it showed couples are feeling the impact. Both partners were affected due to a loss of social connectedness that is so important in healthy aging.

Among the other highlights of the study:

  • Sixty-six percent of post-menopausal women avoid sexual intimacy fearing it is too painful
  • Sixty-three percent of women avoid sexual intimacy due to a general loss of libido
  • Canadian women are among the most likely to agree that due to VA sex is less satisfying
  • One fifth of women feel VA has made them emotionally distant from their partner
  • Forty-four percent of women say VA makes them feel old
  • Sixty-eight percent of men surveyed say they have sex less often because of VA
  • Thirty percent of men say sex is less satisfying for them personally
  • Twenty-six percent of Canadian men say they have stopped having sex altogether.
Studies show that women experiencing VA shy away from sex and feel emotionally distant from their partners. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Taramalvarez.

Treating the symptoms
Many women self-treat using over-the-counter lubricants and moisturizers, which may provide temporary relief of symptoms but do not treat the underlying condition. That can be addressed with Local Estrogen Therapy (LET). As a result of LET, one-third of Canadian women agreed their sex life had improved and that they felt more optimistic about its future, according to the CLOSER Study.

The main message of this research is that women have options.

According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC), effective treatment options are available for VA, with local estrogen therapy being a standard of care.

LET comes in several forms and there are several options in Canada, with more coming to market in the near future. Currently, you can choose from vaginal estrogen tablets, cream, and a vaginal estrogen ring. Which one is right for you? Each option has its own advantages and ease of use so talk to your doctor to help make your decision. Healthcare professionals are a primary source of information and women, together with their partners and their physicians, can find a solution.

The main message of this research is that women have options so their partners need not withdraw, altering the dynamics of the couple and the “connectedness” that we wish to maintain.

Dr. Vivien Brown (shown right) is a family physician in Toronto, a well-known national and international speaker and author of A Woman’s Guide to Healthy Aging – Seven Essential Ways to Keep You Vital, Happy and Strong. She is vice president of Medical Affairs, Medisys Health Group, focusing on advancing and promoting preventative healthcare. Dr. Brown is active in numerous organizations including, past president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, former chair of the consumer education committee for the North American Menopause Society, board member of the Women’s Brain Health Initiative and Health Choices First, plus numerous provincial and federal advisory bodies.