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Cancer survivors are more dissatisfied with their sex lives – despite normal levels of sexual activity and function for their age

SarahJackson17 August 2016

Cancer survivorship rates are improving dramatically, with half of all people diagnosed with cancer in the UK now expected to survive for at least ten years. Although treatment of the cancer is the primary clinical goal, ensuring the best possible quality of life after treatment is important. Preservation of sexual function is a key component of quality of life, yet remains a commonly reported ‘unmet need’ by cancer survivors. However, sexual function declines with ageing and because the majority of cancers are diagnosed in the over-70s, it was previously unclear whether changes in sexual wellbeing reported by cancer survivors are a result of their disease or a natural by-product of ageing.

In a new study published today in Cancer we explored differences in sexual activity, function and concerns between cancer survivors and people who had never received a cancer diagnosis. The findings revealed that a diagnosis of cancer does not seem to affect whether or not people have sex, how often they have sex, what they do when they have sex, and (in the case of men) their sexual function.  Compared with women of a similar age, women who had been diagnosed with cancer within the past five years were just as likely to be sexually active, although they were more likely to report problems with arousal.  Following the five years post-diagnosis the only difference was greater dissatisfaction with their sex lives, with 18% of women with a history of cancer reporting dissatisfaction compared to 12% of cancer-free women.  Male cancer survivors did not report any more sexual problems than their age-matched counterparts, but they were more dissatisfied with their sex lives (31% of men with cancer compared to 20% of men with no history of cancer).

The research involved 2982 men and 3708 women aged 50 years and older taking part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a large population-based cohort of middle-aged and older adults living in England.  Participants reported whether they had ever been diagnosed with cancer, and completed the Sexual Relationships and Activities Questionnaire, a comprehensive measure that includes questions on the frequency of sexual behaviours, problems with sexual activities and function, and concerns and worries about sexual activities, function and relationships.  It is the first study to compare sexual behaviour and concerns between cancer survivors and controls from the same population-based study using a standardised measure.

The results of this study are generally encouraging in showing that older people with cancer do not experience greater problems with sexual activity or functioning than people of the same age without a history of cancer.  However, with more than one in five men and one in nine women reporting that they were dissatisfied with their sex lives, it is clear that there is a need to identify interventions to enhance sexual health in ageing men and women.  In the meantime, better advice on the normal changes in sexual activity and functioning that occur with ageing could help to address the mismatch between the normal sexual behaviour and lower sexual satisfaction seen in cancer survivors.

 

Article link:

Jackson SE, Wardle J, Steptoe A, Fisher A. Sexuality after a cancer diagnosis: a population-based study. Cancer. First published ahead of print 17 August 2016. doi:10.1002/cncr.30263

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.30263/full

Maintaining health literacy through being web-savvy and socially active

Lindsay CKobayashi26 November 2014

Ageing involves many challenges for health and well-being. One under-recognised problem is that of declining literacy skills. While we are familiar with general issues of ageing such as loss of eyesight or physical mobility, what happens to literacy skills during ageing is much less well understood. Literacy is important to health during ageing because literacy is fundamental to managing health. For example, proper taking of medications, understanding what the doctor says, and understanding of written medical information all rely on having adequate literacy. When literacy is used in health contexts such as these, we refer to it as ‘health literacy’. The American Institute of Medicine defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions” (1). The consequences of low health literacy include poor self-care of chronic disease, unnecessary use of emergency services, low use of preventive health services such as cancer screening, and increased risk of mortality (2–4).
A consistent body of evidence indicates that health literacy declines during ageing (5–7). This is thought to be caused by the normal ageing-related decline in cognitive abilities such as mental processing speed and memory (5,8). In our study, we were curious to see whether cognitively stimulating activities would help older adults to maintain their health literacy skills, regardless of any cognitive decline they experienced. In particular, we examined whether internet use and engagement in several different types of social activities might help older adults to maintain health literacy. We used data from almost 4500 men and women aged 52 years and over in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). The ELSA is a population-representative longitudinal study of English adults aged 50 and over, which aims to capture the experience of ageing in England. Since 2002, the study participants have been interviewed every two years about their health, economic, and social conditions. Data on health literacy was measured in 2004 and again in 2010 using a basic reading comprehension test of a medicine label.
At the start of the study, we found that nearly one-third of adults had low health literacy, and that 18% of the study sample experienced a decline in their health literacy skills during the study follow-up period (9). People who were most at risk of declining health literacy were older, had no educational qualifications, had relatively low wealth, were ethnic minorities, and had difficulties with activities of daily living. On the positive side, consistent internet use over the six year study follow up period and engagement in cultural activities such as attending the opera, theatre, art galleries, museums, concerts, or the cinema appeared to protect against health literacy decline (9). The other types of social activities that we looked at were civic activities including being a member of a trade union, environmental group, neighbourhood group, and volunteering, and leisure activities including being a member of a sport or social club, or attending educational or musical classes. Alone, participating in civic or leisure activities had no effect on health literacy during ageing.
When we looked at the combined effects of engaging in none, one, two, three, or four of internet use and each of civic, leisure, and cultural activities, we saw an additive effect where the more activities adults engaged in, the more likely they were to maintain health literacy skills (9). People who engaged in all four of internet use, civic activities, leisure activities, and cultural activities over the study follow-up period had half the odds of losing health literacy skills as people engaged in none of these activities. Importantly, all of these associations were independent of cognitive decline and other factors that might influence internet use and social activities such as wealth, social class, and health status.
What does this study mean? Well, first of all, that it is not inevitable that older people lose literacy skills as they age. It appears that internet use and social activities help with the maintenance of literacy skills. Even adults who experienced cognitive decline appeared to gain a benefit from using the internet and engaging in cultural activities. However, the main concerns are social inequalities in access to the internet and that cultural activities require time, money, and transportation. Older adults who are in poor health, have low wealth, and are from deprived backgrounds are the least likely to take advantage of the internet and to participate in cultural activities. They are also the most vulnerable to the loss of literacy skills as they age. Future research is needed to improve our understanding of how internet use and social engagement promote literacy skills, and to develop strategies to enable the most vulnerable individuals to benefit from technological advances and full participation in society.

Article reference: Kobayashi LC, Wardle J, von Wagner C. Internet use, social engagement and health literacy decline during ageing in a longitudinal cohort of older English adults. J Epidemiol Community Health 2014;epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1136/jech-2014-204733

 

Blog references:
1. Institute of Medicine. What is health literacy? In: Nielsen-Bohlman L, Panzer A, Hamlin B, Kindig D, editors. Health literacy: a prescription to end confusion. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press; 2004:31-58.
2. Berkman ND, Sheridan SL, Donahue KE, Halpern DJ, Crotty K. Low health literacy and health outcomes: an updated systematic review. Ann Intern Med 2011;155:97–107.
3. Kobayashi LC, Wardle J, von Wagner C. Limited health literacy is a barrier to colorectal cancer screening in England: Evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Prev Med 2014;61:100–5.
4. Bostock S, Steptoe A. Association between low functional health literacy and mortality in older adults: longitudinal cohort study. BMJ 2012;344:e1602.
5. Wolf MS, Curtis LM, Wilson EAH, Revelle W, Waite KR, Smith SG, et al. Literacy, cognitive function, and health: results of the LitCog study. J Gen Intern Med 2012;27(10):1300–7.
6. Paasche-Orlow MK, Parker RM, Gazmararian JA, Nielsen-Bohlman LT, Rudd RR. The prevalence of limited health literacy. J Gen Intern Med 2005;20(2):175–84.
7. Gazmararian JA, Baker DW, Williams M V, Parker RM, Scott TL, Green DC, et al. Health literacy among Medicare enrollees in a managed care organization. JAMA 1999;281(6):545–51.
8. Federman AD, Sano M, Wolf MS, Siu AL, Halm EA. Health literacy and cognitive performance in older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc 2009;57(8):1475–80.
9. Kobayashi LC, Wardle J, von Wagner C. Internet use, social engagement and health literacy decline during ageing in a longitudinal cohort of older English adults. J Epidemiol Community Health 2014;epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1136/jech-2014-204733