FRIDAY, Oct. 31, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- In a double whammy for the female gender, new research shows that 40 percent of women report sexual problems, but only 12 percent are distressed about it.
"The good news is that 12 percent is a very different number than 40 percent," said study author Dr. Jan Shifren, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Vincent Menopause Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, both in Boston.
But 12 percent of 83 million U.S. women aged 20 to 65 is nothing to scoff at, noted a related editorial in the November issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology. The research was funded by Boehringer Ingelheim International, maker of flibanserin, a drug for female sexual dysfunction that is currently being tested in clinical trials.
Previous surveys have reported similar estimates of female sexual dysfunction, including low desire and problems with orgasm. The most widely quoted figure, from the U.S. National Health and Social Life Survey, is 43 percent.
However, few of those surveys have looked at distress, despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association and U.S. Food and Drug Administration's guidelines require such distress as part of the diagnostic criteria.
This study included almost 32,000 female respondents aged 18 and older.
Overall, 43.1 percent of those surveyed reported some kind of sexual problem: 39 percent reported diminished desire, 26 percent reported problems with arousal, and 21 percent problems with achieving orgasm.
Only 12 percent, however, reported significant personal distress associated with this problem.
And there were age differences. "The highest prevalence of sexual dysfunction was in older women, but they experienced less associated distress," Shifren said. "The most distress occurred at mid-life, and the youngest women had the lowest prevalence of problems and of associated distress."
Although the study did not specifically look at why older women had more problems yet less distress about them, the authors postulated that reasons could include partner changes, other medical problems, or problems with their partners health.
Women currently experiencing depression had more than double the risk of having distressing sexual problems when compared with non-depressed women. While conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease affect men's sexual health, none of these issues impacted women's sexual health in this study.
"This is a wake-up call to health-care professionals . . . of the importance of sexual health and sexual quality of life," said Sheryl Kingsberg, chief of the division of behavioral medicine at MacDonald Women's Hospital, University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "Forty percent of patients have sexual concerns, and 12 percent have enough of a concern that it's a significant dysfunction in life. This needs to be addressed."
While clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals as well as sex therapists have been working with couples on these issues for decades, medical options, including flibanserin, are now also on the horizon.
"There is research going on, and my hope is that women are finally going to have some options when it comes to sexual disorder treatments," Kingsberg said. "Right now, there are very limited options, but I think it's coming."
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on female sexual dysfunction.