HIV/AIDS In The Over 50 Set
What You Don’t Know Can Indeed Kill You

Francis Vale

Give a single (or not so single) guy over 50 some Viagra and a car and it’s whoopee time. Most likely even a better time than when he had hair and adolescent acne.  But for older women, whose fires burn bright in the night, afternoon, or hell, when can you get over here, the fun may be devastatingly short lived. Just because you are a post-menopausal woman and disease free today, tomorrow you can be HIV infected if you don’t practice safe sex. You are not automatically bestowed nature’s condom as a reward for making it past 50.  According to the CDC, HIV/AIDS cases among the over 50 soared from 16,000 in 1995 to 90,000 in 2003, a 500 percent increase, and older women are becoming infected at a higher rate than older men.

AIDS is one of the leading causes of death among all women aged 25-44 years, with African American and Hispanic women being especially hard hit. In the United States, up to 950,000 Americans are estimated to have HIV/AIDS, with 40,000 new infections every year, and nearly 27% living with the disease are 50 or older. Nationally, the numbers show an infection that’s moving twice as fast among the post-50 crowd than among younger adults, with the number of over-50 cases doubling in the last four years. Among seniors, condoms aren’t for stopping unwanted pregnancies, which they no longer care about, but for stopping becoming HIV infected, which they absolutely should care about.

The problem is typically worse for older women who were monogamously married all their lives, only to lose their husband in later years, and who were never tuned in to the idea of having safe sex beyond saying, sorry, Harold, I have a headache. One good way to get up to speed is to visit a website like the National Association on HIV Over Fifty (NAHOF) NAHOF was founded at the National Conference on AIDS and Aging in October of 1995 in New York City.

Being told you are HIV positive at any age in life is devastating news, although much progress has been made in turning HIV/AIDS into a chronic disease manageable through daily medication. The HIV infection hits the immune system like a sledgehammer. But in older people their immune system capabilities are already downward trending, so it’s a double whammy. Now add in the potpourri of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, loss of muscle mass, and all the other problems that can surge through the over 50 set and the chances of surviving AIDS without serious complications dim dramatically, even with the new AIDS medications. Many seniors also take a number of medications for their ailments, and drug interactions between their regular meds and HIV drugs can seriously complicate HIV/AIDS management.

The medical community also has a big problem in coming to grips with the over 50 HIV/AID issue. To young residents in the ER it’s too often an alien concept and, frankly, they might even shudder when they imagine their single moms frolicking under the sheets. It’s an unfortunate mindset that could make them easily overlook what might be the key factor causing an older patient’s recent infections, tiredness, weight loss, muscle weakness or failing memory. Consider this: AIDS-related dementia can be reversed, but Alzheimer’s cannot. Your regular doctor might also not be thinking about HIV/AIDS and instead may think they are seeing the usual symptoms that often accompany aging. As bad, aging GP’s who see seniors may fall into the same medical stereotype trap.

In many ways, this topic is still a cultural taboo. When was the last time your kids sat you down and discussed the ins and outs of having safe sex? Or would you honestly tell your gynecologist that your complaint might have something to do with your weekly canasta gang body-melding with some extra jokers?

Good sex over 50 is cause for celebration. But unless the issue of HIV/AIDS in seniors is honestly addressed and quickly dealt with at the national level it’s going to lead to much unnecessary suffering and tragically shortened lives. So light the candles honey, sprinkle the perfume, and happily introduce your balding lover to Mr. Jimmy. Old dogs can indeed learn new tricks.

This article originally appeared in Eons.

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