Sex on the brain? How it can improve cognitive function

Getting intimate – or finding your own pleasure – has many health benefits, and a new study reveals it can improve cognitive function, too.

Experiencing pleasure from sex can improve cognitive function, according to a new study from the US.

Researchers studied more than 1,600 people and found that those having sex performed better in cognitive tests than those who weren’t.

It’s a good reason to maintain a healthy sex life, but the benefits were slightly different for older and younger groups. For people aged between 62 and 74, the quality of their experience was a key factor, while for the over-70s regularity was important: having sex once a week made a difference to their cognitive skills when tested five years later.

Couple huggingCredit: Shutterstock / Ground Picture

How intimacy boosts your brain

The health benefits of sex – including better heart health, improved sleep, lower stress levels and a closer bond with your partner – are already well documented. Physical contact such as holding hands and cuddles can also help to lower blood pressure.

Neuroscientist Dr Rachel Taylor tells Saga Exceptional: “Sex increases blood flow to parts of the brain that process emotions, and also reduces the size of the nuclei in the brain that filter fear and anxiety situations, which supports us to be more flexible and positive in our thinking. We get a good dose of oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins, and those increases give us energy, good feelings and motivation. We all need more of that in our life.”

Although the study focuses on people who are in relationships, not everyone has a partner, so can you still reap the rewards from self-love?

“Self-stimulation has similar effects, but you miss out on the oxytocin and dopamine boost of relationship love, so make sure you get good human interaction in other ways,” says Taylor.

But there’s no need to panic if you have no interest in sex, or are unable to have it – cuddles, touching and other forms of intimacy have benefits too.

“We have different nerve endings all over our skin, apart from the palms of our hands and soles of feet, which when touched help us to get oxytocin released as well as endorphins,” says Taylor. “The more human contact we can get, the more human we can be. Eye gazing has also been shown to increase blood flow and oxytocin release in the brain so there is intimacy in all guises that can help us.”


Other ways to boost your cognitive function

If you’re experiencing a lack of intimacy in your life, suggesting you go and do the crossword instead would be the least sexy piece of advice you’d ever want to hear, but the good news is there are many ways you can boost your cognitive function. Varying what you do and trying something new is at the top of the list.

Taylor says: “There are lots of other ways you can improve your cognitive function if you’re not having sex. Do something different that you’ve never done before – it’s really useful in helping our neurons to form new pathways and create new synapses, which is where they communicate with each other.

“The more new things we try, the more neuroplasticity we get in the brain – neuroplasticity is the ability for the brain to grow and change, which is really good for cognitive function. I always say that I want to be the sassy 90-year-old who’s still deadlifting and dynamic, so I do all I can to keep my brain healthy so I can be that woman.”

Five ways to boost your brain (without having sex)

Exercise once a month (or more)

A study by University College London said that exercising as lightly as one to four times a month can have a positive effect on your cognitive function.

Train your brain

You might already do crosswords, sudoku and other puzzles, but learning a new language, the lyrics to a song or a musical instrument is also beneficial.

Take up a new hobby

Keep your brain ticking over by trying a new activity. A global study showed that hobbies and having a purpose can also ward off depression in retirement.

Avoid loneliness

A team of scientists in Japan found that social isolation was a dementia risk, so getting out for a coffee or meeting up for a walk or group exercise has huge benefits.

Get a good night’s sleep

Research shows that people in their fifties and sixties see a drop in brain power if they get less than six hours of sleep a night.

Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier


Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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