Thursday, December 3, 2009

Older Persons at Risk of HIV/AIDS

If an 81-year-old woman came to her doctor, few would guess that she had HIV.

Dr. Veronika Steenpass recalls the time two years ago when an 81-year-old woman arrived at Grady Hospital in Georgia complaining of unexplained weight loss.

She had lost 20 pounds in six months. Following a thorough round of lab tests, the results came back. Dr. Steenpass had to tell a woman old enough to be her grandmother that she was HIV-positive.

While the number of younger people with HIV/AIDS has been decreasing, older people’s numbers with HIV/AIDS are increasing. At Grady Hospital, between January and March 2008, some 38 patients learned they had HIV/AIDS. Fifteen of these patients or nearly 40 percent were over 50 years old.

Many older people do not stop having sex as they age. Recent studies suggest that the majority of older men and women maintain high levels of sexual interest well into their 70s. In fact, drugs such as Viagra have made it possible for older men and their partners to remain sexually active longer. A New England Journal of Medicine study in 2006 reported that a majority of 3,005 American adults surveyed, aged 57 to 85 years, continue to have sex two to three times each month.

However, only 38 percent of the men and 22 percent of the women had discussed sex issues with a doctor since they turned 50 years old. Many older patients feel uneasy discussing sexual behavior with their physicians, according to AARP research. Young doctors, too, can be uncomfortable talking about sexually transmitted diseases with people old enough to be their parents or grandparents, says recent National Institutes of Health study.

In addition, older people often mistake signs of HIV/AIDS for the aches and pains of normal aging. They are less likely than younger people to get tested for the disease. Also they may be ashamed or afraid of being tested. People age 50 and older may have had the virus for years before being tested. By the time they are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, the virus may be in the late stages.

The over-50 crowd remains as a relatively small segment of the nation's at-risk group for sexually transmitted diseases. Medical experts agree that older Americans often are among the most overlooked and, therefore, one of the more vulnerable populations.

However, people over-50 years will account for half of all HIV/AIDS cases in the United States by 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health officials, educators and church advocates must push for more prevention information aimed at aging baby boomers and those firmly in their golden years.

1. P.J. Huffstutter, “Experts: Elders Need Some Sex Education, Too”, Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2007
2. Ibid.

By Yixing Nan
Research Associate at Global Action on Aging