Dr. Jan Shifren, of the MGH Obstetrics and Gynecology Service, found in a survey of women that while 40 per cent of the participants had sexual problems, only 12 per cent of them indicated that those issues were a source of significant personal distress.
"Sexual problems are common in women, but problems associated with personal distress, those which are truly bothersome and affect a woman's quality of life, are much less frequent. For a sexual concern to be considered a medical problem, it must be associated with distress, so it's important to assess this in both research studies and patient care," said Shifren, who led the study appearing in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.
During the study, the research team surveyed 32,000 women aged 18 to over 100 from across the U.S. using a well-established survey of sexual function, supplemented by a validated measure of a woman's distress related to her sex life - including feelings of anger, guilt, frustration, and worry.
Forty-three per cent of the respondents reported some level of sexual problem, with 39 percent reporting low levels of desire, 26 percent problems with arousal, and 21 percent difficulties with orgasm.
However, only 12 percent of the study participants attributed such problems to distress.
While the prevalence of sexual problems was highest in women over 65, they reported the lowest levels of distress. On the other hand, distress was reported most frequently in women aged 45 to 64.
The youngest group -from 18 to 44 - had lower levels of both problems and distress. Women with depression were more than twice as likely to report distress over any type of sexual problem as those not suffering from depression.
"Although sexual problems were very common in women over age 65, these problems often weren't associated with distress. Several factors could be behind the lower levels of distress in the oldest group. If their partners also have low desire, it may not be looked on as a problem, or additional health issues could be of greater concern," Shifren says.
"While distressing sexual problems are much less common in women than sexual problems overall, they still affect approximately one in eight adult women.
"As part of a thorough health assessment, it's important that health care providers ask their female patients if they have sexual concerns and if those problems are associated with distress. Although this study did not examine treatments for sexual problems, effective options are available - including relationship counseling, treatment of associated medical conditions and sex therapy," she adds.