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Seniors could be at risk for AIDS

by Sue Lanza

Despite dire warnings for the past decade, the number of cases of HIV and AIDS in person fifty years of age or older continues to increase significantly with no end in sight. Learn why seniors like you fall into this risk category and what can be done about it.

Why Seniors Are At Risk

AIDS, short for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is a disease that often presents first with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) before developing fully into the disease. With no cure and only the ability to manage symptoms, researchers continue to monitor the disease carefully in order to recommend strategies for prevention. The HIV/AIDS situation with the senior population has clinicians worried as the number of senior aged cases has almost doubled since 2001.

You may be shocked to learn that of all the AIDS cases in the United States today, approximately twenty-nine percent are in people aged fifty and older. In some larger cities, this number may be even greater. Health care professionals are also finding that cases of AIDS are increasing in individuals in their sixties and seventies.

Seniors are a higher risk to develop HIV or full blown AIDS for a number of reasons including:

  • Early diagnosis is often missed as older people don't get tested regularly
  • Non-specific symptoms in AIDS like poor nutrition or immune functioning issues can appear similar to routine aging changes so they may not be correlated to the disease
  • Increased age brings more chances of mortality. The National AIDS Behavior Survey states that at least ten percent of all persons over fifty would have at least one risk factor in place that could put them at risk for developing AIDS
  • Most older adults know less in general about HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STD's) because the older population was not targeted in most public health warning messages.
  • Seniors may not readily volunteer vital information about their sex life or drug use during visits with health care professionals. HIV contracted via injection could be from drug use or sharing insulin needles and represents sixteen percent of all AIDS cases of those over fifty.
  • Doctors often neglect to question their patients about sexual activities or drug use during office visits
  • Many older persons are sexually active but they don't perceive themselves to be at risk so they are not always practicing safe sex by using condoms
  • Older women have even more to be concerned about as aging causes vaginal dryness and thinning which can lead to skin tears allowing an opportunity for possible transmission of an infection like HIV
  • Viagra and similar medications are helping seniors keep an active sex life much longer than before
  • Stigma is still attached to HIV/AIDS prompting some seniors to delay getting help or not involving their support system. Those older persons who are living in independent or assisted living may also feel a community pressure to not disclose the information about their diagnosis.
  • Seniors have been omitted from the research trials so key historical data is missing on this population
  • Older people with AIDS do die sooner than younger folks with the disease because the senior was most likely diagnosed in a later stage of the disease and may have already had existing chronic conditions that accelerated the process
  • Public health has not been consistent in offering a prevention message or the availability of testing

How Can Seniors Be Informed About AIDS?

More articles sharing the facts are a good start but here are some other suggestions to assist in spreading the message:

  • Some of the more improved HIV/AIDS treatments are allowing people to live longer so the numbers are growing from that fact alone.
  • The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends lowering the barrier to routine AIDS testing to all adult persons up to age sixty-four. The CDC also mentions that persons who have had blood transfusions before 1985 or had surgeries in developing countries should get tested as soon as possible.
  • All health delivery systems, whether public or private, must provide prevention messages to the senior population that are tailored to them and reach across cultural barriers.
  • Physician education needs to be in place to encourage their awkward yet necessary conversations with their elderly clients. In addition, they need to mandate AIDS testing as part of their routine physical.

With so many of us in the U.S. over fifty and the baby boomers joining us in record numbers every year, we need to bring this issue out into the open in order to save lives. And this isn't a joke--the life you save could be your own. Have you had your AIDS test yet?