September 19, 2012
When many people think about who is at risk for HIV/AIDS in the U.S., the term "Baby Boomers" doesn't often come to mind. But it should: This virus does not merely live among young folk. In 2009, an estimated 17 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. were among people age 50 or over.
So what's really going on?
Take a look at what's making this group more vulnerable to contracting HIV.
Lack of Sex and HIV Ed
One might think that older Americans know more about sex, but that often isn't true. Many older people actually know less about HIV/AIDS and how to protect themselves in comparison to their younger counterparts. Think about it: AIDS wasn't necessarily part of their upbringing when they were learning about sex for the first time.
For many people over 50, using condoms and other forms of contraception is a foreign concept, especially for people who have been married for a long time and during their childbearing years may have relied on birth control pills and the rhythm method to prevent pregnancy. Also, some folks just don't even know basic HIV transmission facts or that unprotected sex and sharing needles are risk factors.
Re-entering the Dating Pool
As the post-World War II population boom ages and the children of the '60s enter their retirement years, more and more older people are finding themselves back in the dating game looking for love -- or just good ol' sex. (Just ask the seniors in the recently cancelled reality show Sunset Daze.) Even online dating sites are catering to people over 50, which is great, because younger folks shouldn't be the only ones to have fun and companionship.
But with this comes some safer sex challenges, especially for those who know very little about HIV and condoms -- and who think that, because they are past their childbearing years, they are not at risk. Even for those who do know about the need to use condoms, some older women and men who many have not ever had to negotiate condom use may hit serious obstacles trying to do that now.
Bias and Stigma
For many people over 50, the thought of being at risk for HIV doesn't cross their minds. But they're not alone in this thought: There are way too many doctors and health care workers who refuse to acknowledge that older people are having sex. And we all know that couldn't be further from the truth.
According to a study by the University of Chicago, 60 percent of men and 37 percent of women 50 years old and above report engaging in sexual intercourse a few times per month.
This particular silence poses some serious problems, especially since older people are less likely to talk about their sex lives or drug use with their doctors. And so if doctors are not leading the conversation about risky behaviors, they are missing prime opportunities to test and educate, which in the end only places people over 50 further at risk. Perhaps this is why so many older people are being diagnosed with HIV with extremely low CD4 counts and serious HIV-related health issues.
For many, heat flashes, night sweats and loss of sex drive are classic signs of menopause. But it's other symptoms that of particular concern when it comes to HIV.
Vaginal dryness, as well as thinning and inflammation of the vaginal walls, can lead to small cuts when menopausal and pre-menopausal women engage in sexual contact. These microscopic tears can seriously raise a woman's risk of contracting HIV and can serve as an entry point for the virus to enter into the bloodstream and replicate.
Male Enhancement Meds
Viagra and Cialis have allowed for many men over 50 suffering from erectile dysfunction to their groove back. With this renewed sex life, we have seen an increase in STD and HIV infections, including those who live in nursing homes and other types of senior living facilities.
When you couple increased sexual activity with all of the risk factors we've already mentioned in this slide show, it only further heightens seniors' risk of contracting HIV.
Meanwhile, among men who do not use male enhancement drugs, many may be unwilling to use condoms because it forces a break in intercourse -- an interruption that might cost them their erection.