Think you know everything there is to know about the penis? Think again. Here’s what’s actually in store for the male member as the aging process takes its toll.
No matter how many supplements and green juices you pump into your body, or how often you give your wardrobe a totally fresh overhaul, you simply can’t escape the inevitable process of aging.
While women are basically conditioned from childhood to prevent the gradual process of physiological deterioration, embarking on an endless cycle of tightening, toning and dyeing, the changes experienced by men are considerably less talked about.
Alongside thinning (and greying) hair, the pop of a beer belly, and a sudden interest in gardening, the aging process unleashes a variety of physiological changes to a man’s sexual health and function.
So what actually happens to the penis’ two major functions, urination and sex? Luckily, Associate Professor Tim Moss and his 20 years of experience in the field join Body+Soul to set the record straight. Here are the most common questions answered about the penis as it ages.
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#1. Is trouble peeing caused by the penis?
If you’re basing your understanding of an older man’s penile health on what you see on TV, you’re probably picturing someone standing over a toilet late at night, unsuccessfully willing on a steady stream of urine. While it’s an easy assumption to make, Moss explains challenges with urination aren’t usually caused directly by the penis.
“Enlargement of the prostate gland, which happens to most men as they age, interferes with urine flow,” Moss says, adding that the muscles of the bladder or pelvic floor may also weaken with age.
While the prostate gland might enlarge, the actual penis is unlikely to change in shape and size over the course of the adult life. However, there is a lack of research that has been conducted to definitively outrule the possibility.
#2. Is male menopause real?
The phrase ‘male menopause’ has gained rapid traction over recent years, but how accurate is the concept? According to Moss, while the male aging process can certainly be defined by key physiological chances, they aren’t quite comparable to what women experience during menopause.
“Males don’t have a sudden age-related change in sex hormone levels like females do,” says Moss. “There’s lots of noise about low testosterone levels, but if you stay fit and healthy as you age testosterone levels don’t fall.”
More realistic explanations for a drastic decrease in testosterone levels with age are unmanaged chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, obesity, or heart disease.
#3. Are men fertile forever?
Throughout history, women’s ability to procreate successfully has been largely defined by their biological clock, with increase age being one of the biggest barriers to healthy conception and foetal development. Men, on the other hand, produce their end of the bargain (sperm) constantly. But even though a man’s procreational timeline is far less constrained than a woman’s, their baby-making abilities will also eventually decrease with age.
“There’s a misconception that male fertility lasts forever,” explains Moss. “In fact, older men take longer to get their partners pregnant, and there’s a link between a father’s age when children are conceived and some neurodevelopmental problems in their children.”
According to the expert, breaks in DNA become more common with aging, possibly affecting the pregnancy experience and the health of a foetus. In short, sperm count and quality do indeed fall with age.
#4. What causes erectile dysfunction?
The causes of erectile dysfunction (ED) usually depend on the age of the individual. In younger men, ED is associated with psychological indicators such as anxiety, while older men tend to experience ED as a result of physical health problems associated with worsening nerve and blood vessel function.
“The nerves and blood vessels that allow the increase in blood flow to the penis, to cause an erection, lose function with aging and disease,” explains Moss. “In fact, the ability to get an erection is a good indicator of cardiovascular health: people with erectile dysfunction are more likely than normal to have a heart attack or stroke.”
Many people believe ED is easily ‘fixed’ with a pill in all cases, an assumption Moss says is misguided. Given its major causes, the expert recommends lifestyle management techniques that promote cardiovascular function and stress reduction.
#5. Is erectile dysfunction inevitable?
According to Moss, roughly one in ten men under 40 experience ED, but just about every man over 85 has it. While the stats show every man is likely to experience some form of erectile dysfunction throughout his lifetime, there are a few reasons it may become more prevalent later in life, and aging isn’t always the culprit.
“From what we know about what causes erectile dysfunction, it’s health problems like cardiovascular disease or diabetes, rather than aging itself, that cause it,” Moss says, adding there’s no age-related cut-off where erectile dysfunction suddenly becomes more of a problem.
Additionally, changes in erectile function usually occur gradually. People may notice spontaneous erections less often, take longer to get an erection, be unable to maintain one for a prolonged period of time, or may just notice their erections aren’t as hard as they once were.
#6. What happens to the libido?
The big question on everyone’s mind. While it’s common for libido to decrease with age, Moss explains changes to the adult sex drive happen all the time for a number of reasons, “Libido can fall when we’re unwell or stressed, or rise if we’re happy and relaxed or if we have a new partner,” he says.
Furthermore, the sensations experienced during sex are also likely to change with age.
“There’s a decrease in sensitivity of the penis with age, it tends to take longer until ejaculation, longer before it’s possible to have an erection again after orgasm, and ejaculation feels like they have less ‘force’,” Moss explains.
#7. Can you reverse anything?
While Moss encourages a healthy lifestyle at all ages, he explains there’s only so much our bodies can tolerate before they stop working properly, “The penis is much like any other part of the male body: it is affected by aging but staying fit and healthy is the best way to prevent or slow down the associated changes.”
That means ensuring you incorporate regular exercise and a healthy diet into your routine from a young age, keeping your penis ‘happy’ through healthy cardiovascular function.
#8. What’s the worst thing you can do?
In general, people have a pretty good idea of what activities and indulgences impact their health in a beneficial way, as well as what habits should generally be avoided. Well, according to Moss, the penis responds to such things in the same way.
“One thing that lots of people do that is definitely bad for their penises is smoking,” Moss explains. “The nerve and blood vessel damage caused by smoking is a real problem. Excessive alcohol consumption is also bad.”
Aside from chain-smoking Marlboros and polishing off a six-pack every night, the worst thing anyone can do is ignore any questionable symptoms, “Men seem to tolerate symptoms of disease for a while before they seek help,” Moss says. “Seeing a doctor when you notice a small problem is the best way to prevent it from becoming a big problem.”