Pheromones: Chemical attraction?

You can't see them, feel them, or smell them, but they may have a huge influence on whom you find attractive. No, they aren't Cupid's invisible henchmen, although their effect might be just as magical. They're pheromones, chemical messengers emitted by one creature to evoke a response in another of the same species.

Pheromones are blends of chemicals, including acetates and aldehydes, and different combinations are thought to send different signals. For decades, scientists have studied them in bugs. A female moth, for example, emits pheromones from a gland on her abdomen. A male moth is aroused by the signal, flies up to 30 miles to find the female, and mates with her. Since 1959, we've synthesized insect pheromones to control pest populations - for example, to confuse males so they can't find the females.

We also know a lot about pheromones in animals. Hamsters need them to recognize other hamsters from their social groups, as well as to choose a mate. Pheromones help determine the pecking order among male elephants, and they enable mother rats to show their offspring what's edible and what's poisonous.

Human pheromones, on the other hand, are the subject of much debate. Their role in human attraction is controversial, in part because the nasal ducts that animals use to sense pheromones appear to be inactive in people (some researchers claim that's not true - we just haven't found the nerve that makes it possible).

Most researchers agree human pheromones exist. This agreement is due in part to a 1971 study that showed that the menstrual cycles of women who live or work together tend to synchronize over time. Researchers believe that this may be the result of picking up on each other's pheromones.

Other studies have compared men's and women's responses to hormone-like chemicals, such as androstadienone (derived from testosterone, the male sex hormone) and estratetraenol (related to estrogen, the female sex hormone). A 2001 study from Sweden used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the hypothalamus in the brain, which influences the release of sex hormones in the body. They found that only women's hypothalamuses respond to androstadienone, and only men's respond to estratetraenol. Exactly how and why are not known. (That hasn't stopped entrepreneurial types from selling perfumes that promise to help customers attract bedmates like catnip does felines.)

Research has turned up some other fascinating discoveries. For example, a study published in 2005 showed that in a group of gay men, the hypothalamus responded to the odor of a testosterone derivative in the same way it did in a group of female subjects. It's not clear if this is a case of sexual orientation influencing biology, or the other way around.

While scientists sniff away at the legitimacy of human pheromones and their role in sexuality, what should lovelorn singles do? Appearance and personality probably have a greater impact on your chances of attracting and keeping a partner than chemical signals ever will. Even the researchers who study the power of pheromones say that their effects are mediated by psychology and social interaction, so it's probably wise to skip the overhyped perfumes and overhaul your table manners instead.

Why love hurts

Popular wisdom holds that love is in the air, that it makes the world go 'round, and that it's something that is better to have had and lost than... well, you know. Love is many things, but apparently it is not for the faint of heart.

Falling in love is as much a physical reaction as it is an emotional one. In fact, the "symptoms" of being smitten - rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, dilated pupils - are the same as those of the "fight or flight" stress response we have in reaction to an adrenaline surge. Love is also mind-altering - researchers report that brain images of people looking at a picture of their beloved resemble those of people high on cocaine.

It's no surprise, then, that the mind and body are affected when love is unrequited or a romance goes sour. The impact on a person's mood and behaviour can be dramatic. In various stages of love, people exhibit signs of mania (elevated mood, inflated self-esteem), depression (insomnia, tearfulness, loss of concentration), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (preoccupation, frequent checking for e-mail and text messages, pre-date hygiene rituals). Indeed, for thousands of years, lovesickness was accepted as a legitimate medical diagnosis, which gives the term "madly in love" a new dimension.

Love can also be a real pain... in the heart. In 2005, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine reported that sudden emotional stress can cause severe but reversible weakness of the heart muscle. Stress cardiomyopathy, nicknamed "broken heart syndrome," occurs when the heart is temporarily "stunned" by a prolonged surge in adrenaline and other stress hormones (exactly how isn't yet known). Symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, fluid in the lungs, and heart failure, and are most often displayed by middle-aged or elderly women. Patients are often misdiagnosed as having a massive heart attack. Fortunately, unlike those who have had a heart attack, they recover completely within two weeks and there is no lasting damage to the heart.

That doesn't mean the lovelorn are out of danger. Studies show that it is possible to die of a broken heart. The first and most-cited report appeared in the British Medical Journal in 1969. Researchers followed 4,500 widowers aged 55 and older for 9 years. The risk of dying in the first 6 months after the death of a spouse was 40% higher than usual, with the most common cause being a heart attack. As time went on, the risk decreased to normal levels.

These findings are supported by a larger study published in 1996. Researchers analyzed data from 1.5 million people aged 35 to 84. The risk of dying from a heart attack within the 6 months following a spouse's death was 20-35% higher than normal, while the chances of dying from an accident, alcohol-related problems, or violence was 100% higher.

Before you decide to join a monastery, however, rest assured that it's not all bad news. Decades of research show that people who are happily married live longer than singles. They enjoy better mental and emotional well-being, have lower rates of cancer, heart failure, and other diseases, and are less likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other violent crimes. They also have greater collective wealth and a larger support network, and are less likely to smoke and drink heavily.

It takes time to find the right partner, but you can enjoy these benefits, too, if you survive the initial throes of passion and heartache. It seems that the prevailing theories are correct: of all the things that have been claimed about love, nobody ever said it was easy.

Senior sex: Romance, Act Two

Canadians enjoy intimacy well into their golden years. As more and more people are realizing, sex and romance don't stop after 60... or 70, 80, or 90. The question is, how do you keep the passion blazing as time goes by?

In 2004, AARP (a non-profit organization for people over the age of 50 that provides information and services about issues important to this age group) conducted a sex survey among 1,682 Americans over 45 years of age from across the US. It found that this demographic is enjoying "a second sexual revolution." More than half of those surveyed agreed that sexual activity is critical to a relationship and important for good quality of life. About one-third of respondents, or about half of those with regular sexual partners, have intercourse once a week or more. The study authors also noted that, compared to AARP's first sex survey in 1999, more respondents said they sought sex information from healthcare professionals, health magazines, and other sources, and that the use of sex medicines, hormones, or other treatments has "grown tremendously." Overwhelmingly, survey respondents declared that sex is not just for the young.

While that's true, sex won't be the same as when we were young. As we age, our bodies change, and that can affect our sexuality. Both men and women may take longer to become aroused, and may find they have less stamina. It can also take longer to feel satisfied. The hormonal changes of menopause can cause vaginal dryness or discomfort in women. Men may find their erections aren't as firm or large, and orgasms are less intense. Rather than give up on sex, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about treatment options, such as lubricants for women and medication for men.

There are other reasons that sex may become more challenging, such as a new disability or health problem, lack of self-confidence, or the side effects of prescription medications. Explore ways to reduce the impact of these factors, whether it's talking to your doctor about switching drugs, treating an underlying health issue, or having an honest discussion with your partner about your changing needs and abilities.

It's also good to be open-minded - try new positions or having sex at the time of day you have the most energy, for example. Remember that sex is not only about intercourse, and intimacy is not just about sex. There are other ways to satisfy yourself and your partner and bring you closer together.

While the notion of sex for life is a tantalizing one, there is one warning you should heed. All this pleasurable activity among older adults has resulted in a not-so-sexy problem: an increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, among American seniors. Age does not make you immune to STIs. According to Health Canada, about 12% of those who test positive for AIDS are 50 or older.

Find out your status - get tested for HIV. Talk to your doctor about sexually transmitted infections. If you are becoming intimate with a new partner, use protection. After all, you don't want anything to get in the way of the rest of your sex life!