Dr. Wendy Walsh: If you're old enough to remember Dustin Hoffman as the young man being seduced by Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 movie "The Graduate," then you're probably old enough to be a cougar now yourself. We've all heard about the female in our modern culture who is so quaintly referred to as the "cougar." The term is used to describe a woman in the fall or winter of her life who prefers to date -- and presumably have sex with -- men in the spring of their lives.
While the term implies predatory behavior (and some women have a problem with that), the trend has become so commonplace that it has even spawned a TV series ("Cougar Town"). Now researchers have started to focus on the phenomenon -- and they've uncovered some fascinating information about the biological and social forces that are making "Mrs. Robinsons" more prevalent.
A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology recently found that the old-fashioned view of menopause as a time of waning sexual energy isn't true for all women. It also found that social and psychological factors are far more influential on sexual behavior than hormonal changes are. In other words, even if a woman's sex-hormone levels decline with menopause, her sexual desire may not be affected, as long as she feels youthful and fit and lives in a permissive environment with opportunities to meet younger men (or older ones, for that matter). In fact, just before a woman hits full-on menopause, her sex drive may actually get a boost!
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According to a study published in Personality and Individual Differences, psychologists at the University of Texas found that women aged 27 to 45 often have a heightened sex drive in response to their dwindling fertility. More women are waiting until their 30s and 40s to bear children, and the study found that those women are more willing to engage in a variety of sexual activities to capitalize on their remaining childbearing years. This so-called "reproduction expediting" often involves one-night stands and adventurous bedroom behavior -- including the seduction of younger men.
But before you run off and sow your wild oats with a much-younger guy, heed this warning: The greater the age gap between a wife and her husband (regardless of who's older), the lower her life expectancy. According to a new study from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, having a much-older husband shortens a woman's life -- and having a much-younger one shortens it even more! The researchers' verdict: For a woman, the best choice is to marry a man of exactly the same age.