Sexual dysfunction in MS occurs at similar rates in all age groups

Study finds primary sexual dysfunction 'is equally concerning for all ages'

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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Problems with sexual dysfunction are a concern for multiple sclerosis (MS) patients of all ages, but the issues tend to have distinct causes as people age, a new study highlights.

The study, “Age-Related Differences in the Severity of Sexual Dysfunction Symptoms and Psychological Distress in Individuals with Multiple Sclerosis,” was published in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders.

Sexual dysfunction — broadly referring to problems with sexual performance and pleasure — is a common symptom for people with MS.

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MS symptoms can lead to problems with libido, sexual dysfunction

MS itself can cause neurological damage that can decrease libido and lead to physiological issues like vaginal dryness or erectile dysfunction, which is called primary sexual dysfunction. Other disease symptoms like fatigue and spasticity can also cause complications with intimacy, known as secondary sexual dysfunction, and emotional issues like depression can cause tertiary sexual dysfunction.

Experiences of sexual intimacy change over a lifetime, and sexual dysfunction may affect people differently at different ages. However, there hasn’t been much formal research into how the experience of sexual dysfunction varies by age in people with MS.

Here, a team of U.S. scientists conducted analyses to learn more.

“The current study seeks to fill this gap in the literature by accessing an MS database with sexuality measures and examining whether there are differences in primary, secondary, or tertiary [sexual dysfunction] symptoms and distress presentations among individuals of different ages,” the researchers wrote.

For the study, the team used data from a 2006 survey conducted as part of the North American Research Committee on Multiple Sclerosis Registry, an initiative gathering long-term clinical and demographic data from MS patients.

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Survey included more than 5,000 people with MS

The survey included questions about demographics, as well as the Multiple Sclerosis Intimacy and Sexuality Questionnaire-19 (MSISQ19), which is a validated measure assessing MS-related sexual dysfunction, and an assessment of life quality called the 12-Item Short Form Health Survey (SF-12).

The analysis included data from more than 5,000 people with MS: 750 young adults (ages 19 to 39), 4,680 middle-aged adults (ages 40 to 64), and 385 adults older than 65. About three-quarters of the patients were female, and more than two-thirds reported experiencing notable sexual dysfunction.

The scientists constructed statistical models to look for significant differences between these groups. Results showed that the severity of primary sexual dysfunction was similar in all the age groups.

“All three groups had very similar scores … This indicates that when it comes to individuals with MS, primary [sexual dysfunction] is equally concerning for all ages,” the researchers wrote.

For secondary and tertiary sexual dysfunction, older adults with MS tended to report lower scores, suggesting that these issues were less of a concern for them.

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Emotional distress can be major driver of problems with sexual intimacy

These differences were statistically significant in models that included only MSISQ19 scores, but when the researchers also included data on mental health-related quality of life from the SF-12, the difference between age groups was no longer significant.

According to the researchers, this finding highlights that emotional distress can be a major driver of problems with sexual intimacy in MS.

The researchers noted several limitations in this analysis such as there being much more data from middle-aged adults compared with other age groups, and because the data were collected in 2006, it’s not guaranteed that they still hold true now nearly 20 years later.

The analysis also did not include data on factors such as treatment, sexual orientation, or cultural variables that may affect the experience of sexual dysfunction.