Senior Citizens and HIV
This may sound unbelievable to you, but the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) say that the number of seniors living with HIV is actually increasing. At this point, over a quarter of all diagnosed HIV and AIDS patients are aged over 50. Furthermore, Yale Medical School researchers and experts project that 50% of all US citizens living with the disease will be over 50 years old by the end of 2017.
The development of new therapies for HIV that are more effective allowed many patients to survive and live through their senior years. Advances in the 1990s allowed not only for faster diagnosis, but also rapid treatment that manages the disease successfully throughout decades, even though infected people remain facing various health challenges in their lives.
Still, even the senior population experiences a rise in HIV cases. Why is this the case?
Seniors are Not Untouchable by STDs
Seeing that sexually transmitted diseases are most common in young people, we often think this cannot happen to the senior citizens. We see young people as the target of HIV and other STDs, focusing all our worries towards them.
However, seniors are also at risk of developing HIV and AIDS, especially nowadays. At this point, divorce rates are much higher than before and adults have changed attitudes about sexuality. Furthermore, there is the invention and increased use of drugs such as Viagra, allowing everyone to have sexual relations.
All this makes seniors equally likely to be exposed to the STDs as young people.
Seniors and Exposure to HIV/AIDS
When a senior is exposed to the infection, they are highly likely to become infected. Here are some reasons why the risk is increased:
- As people age, their immune system becomes weakened. This makes it hard for us to fight off infections as effectively as before
- Seniors often have a variety of health conditions due to aging and stress. Underlying conditions make them at higher risk of contracting other communicable diseases
- The skin changes as people age, making it easier for the viruses to enter our bloodstream
Despite the increased risk of being infected, seniors rarely understand these risks or take precautions to avoid being exposed to HIV. In addition, they rarely are tested for the virus, ask their sexual partner to be tested, or discuss this with their doctor. They find it embarrassing to speak about sexual relations at this age or simply do not want to admit to their risky behavior while practicing sex.
In other words, seniors fear the stigma of HIV.
This is further complicated since doctors do not usually ask seniors about their sexual life. Thinking that seniors are not sexually active make them avoid the subject altogether, which makes HIV awareness extremely low for people aged over 50.
Another issue is the lack of symptoms with HIV. Until the point where the disease progresses, there may be no symptoms or minor symptoms to start with. Knowing this, AIDS symptoms can easily be misunderstood as other age-related conditions’ symptoms, which is why elders are usually diagnosed when the disease has progressed to an advanced level.
Take for example, the symptom of pneumonia in an AIDS patient. If the patient is senior, doctors are very likely to diagnose them with congestive heart failure instead of check for STDs, especially if they are unaware of the sexual activity of the patient. Furthermore, doctors may see the symptoms of dementia as a sign of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, or misdiagnose weight loss and fatigue with ‘a result of aging’.
Early diagnosis of HIV is crucial if you want the treatment to be successful, which makes the existence of STDs in seniors and these issues a serious problem for their sexual health.
Seniors Should Get Tested
Testing for HIV is same for everyone and extremely easy. Seniors should be tested if they are sexually active, and can do so by asking their doctor for a quick HIV and AIDS test. In addition, they may turn to health centers and local hospitals that offer such tests.
In most states, the results for STD tests are actually private and patients can even give the test anonymously, so even seniors who feel embarrassed about sharing their sexual life with others can avoid the uncomfortable conversations and do this anonymously.
Aging with HIV and AIDS
As we said, medical treatment for HIV is now improved greatly, allowing diagnosed people to live well into their senior age. Even though the virus complicates the patient’s life and makes it hard to manage other diseases, medicine has found many ways to keep HIV patients alive for decades.
Some conditions such as dementia, kidney disease, cancer and heart disease can develop earlier in HIV patients due to the side effect of treatment and the virus’ effect on the body. In addition, drugs used to treat the infection can worsen certain health conditions such as osteoporosis, diabetes, arthritis and hypertension.
This makes it even more important for seniors to be tested if they are sexually active. The health problems with HIV positive seniors are much higher than those for young people.
In addition to all this, the financial and social toll is high for HIV-positive people. Seniors who age with HIV face extremely high medical bills, which raise the risk of depression. Depending on the complexity of the senior’s regimen, family care giving becomes much more complicated and requires strict safety precautions.
Seniors who were diagnosed with the infection before the 1990s have many troubles now that medicine has advanced to this level. Many of them failed to save for retirement, thinking they will not survive to see the age of 60 or 70. For this reason, countries started implementing social security benefits for people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.
The inability to become pregnant again, the lack of awareness of sexual infection risks and stigma are only few of the causes of the increase of HIV in seniors. In order to reduce this number, seniors need to be sexually educated and motivated to take care of their sexual health if sexually active.