An unexpected benefit of getting down with it.
For an act that’s defined by its physicality, sex is also very mental. We know that regular sex can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing, easing stress and anxiety as it results in the release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin and dopamine. But as it turns out, the deed might have an even bigger impact on the brain.
How sex impacts cognitive functionIn a 2010 study (in rats), researchers found that sexual activity increased the number of neurons in the hippocampus—translation: it improved cell growth in the part of the brain that’s in charge of memory. This, Insider reported, when translated to humans, means that sex could (keyword: could) potentially improve the resilience of memory in older adults and help to prevent conditions like dementia. Another study published in 2014 (also in rats) noted that sex leads to an increased number of neurons in this region of the brain, as well as an improvement in cognitive function. Researchers also found that sex was a beneficial barrier to some of the negative impacts of stress as well. These changes, however, are not permanent: When there was a longer withdrawal period in between mating sessions, the improvements in cognitive function were lost.
The limits of sex on smartsIt’s nice to imagine a world where having lots of sex made you smarter at an increasing rate—but sadly, that’s not quite the case here. The research on how sex can potentially improve memory and cognitive function is certainly promising, but the measurable translation to humans is unclear. Basically: no promises here, but why not give it a go?
There is some additional research that adds to the promise. A 2017 study of older adults found that a greater frequency of sexual activity was positively correlated to higher scores on cognitive assessments. As the researchers put it, “the findings have important implications for the maintenance of intimate relationships in later life.”
The key? It seems like sex has the greatest impact on cognitive function in older adults because it affects the part of the brain that deals with memory—and older adults are more likely than young people to deal with cognitive decline and memory loss. But these are the very people who might be having less sex in the first place: as The Atlantic reported, a 2013 study found that older adults with “mild cognitive impairment” (what may be a precursor to Alzheimer’s) were half as likely to have engaged in recent sexual activity when compared to their peers without that same impairment.
So, can sex make you smarter? Not necessarily—but as you age, it can be an important factor that keeps you sharper for longer. Intimacy, after all, is important for all age groups.