February 6, 2015
Table of Contents
UNAIDS estimates that over 3.5 million older adults (age 50 and over) are living with HIV (HIV+) worldwide. The proportion of adults who are older and living with HIV has increased in all regions since 2007, and is highest in high-income countries.
In the US, HIV began mostly as a disease of young men. Today, however, the epidemic affects both women and men of all ages, including older women. While 45 or 50 may not seem 'old,' it is often the age currently used by organizations that keep track of health-related statistics (e.g., the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC).
While most new HIV infections are still in younger people, women over 50 are getting HIV at an increasing rate. In addition, many people living with HIV are living longer, healthier lives because of the success of newer HIV drugs. As a result, it is estimated that by 2015, almost half of all people in the US living with HIV will be over 50.
Older women are sometimes ignored or overlooked in discussions about HIV prevention and care. It is important that this change, and that older women, their health care providers, and their families understand how the virus can and does impact this group.
There are many things older women can do to prevent the spread of HIV and live healthier in their second half of life.
First, it is important for older women to have correct information about what HIV is and how it is spread (transmitted) from person to person. To learn more, see The Well Project's articles, What Is HIV? and HIV Transmission. If you have heard rumors or stories about HIV, check out our Myths and HIV article to separate fact from fiction.
See the video "HIV and Aging" from the Administration on Aging from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) by clicking the link below.
Age does not protect you from getting or spreading HIV. Practicing safer sex can reduce your risk of getting HIV. So can using clean needles when injecting drugs. For more information, see our articles, Safer Sex and Cleaning Works.
It is important to prevent new HIV infections in older people by making sure that they understand the need for routine HIV testing and early diagnosis. The CDC now recommends that screening for HIV infection be performed routinely for all patients aged 13 to 64 years in all health-care settings. If you are older than 64, you still need to be tested for HIV if you are sexually active. Additionally, it recommends that all health-care providers encourage patients and their prospective sex partners to be tested for HIV before initiating a new sexual relationship.
If you have been exposed to HIV, no matter what your age, it is important that you get tested for HIV and talk about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) with your provider. PEP means taking HIV drugs to prevent HIV after an HIV exposure. PEP needs to be taken within 72 hours of being exposed to HIV and lasts for 28 days.
If you do test positive for HIV, there is no need to give in or give up (please see our article, Did You Just Test Positive?). With a good attitude and a good HIV drug regimen, you may be able to live with HIV well into old age. If you are negative, you can learn what you can do to stay that way. Lastly, knowing your HIV status is an important way to prevent the spread of HIV to others you care about.
Unfortunately, older people are often a forgotten audience for HIV informational programs. We do not usually see the face of an older person or senior citizen on HIV prevention posters. It is important for health care and social service providers to recognize and accept that their aging patients and clients are at risk for HIV. It is also important for providers to ask older patients about their sexual and drug histories.
It is just as important for older women to tell their health care providers about any injection drug use or unsafe sexual experiences, as well as any physical or sexual violence in their lives. Also mention any other events or situations that you think may have put you at risk for HIV, such as getting a tattoo without being sure that the tattoo artist was using sterile disposable needles. Giving your health care provider accurate information is the best way to protect your health and ensure that you get good medical care, even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable to do so.
There are several ways in which living and aging with HIV are different compared to aging without HIV infection. Many of the health problems of older people appear to happen earlier and progress faster in people living with HIV. If you are an older HIV+ woman, you may be interested in our articles, Menopause and HIV and Aging and HIV.