The dos and don’ts of being sexually active generally focus on teens and young adults but an expert at Baylor College of Medicine says they aren’t the only ones at risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
“The number of older adults affected by STDs has been increasing over the last several years,” said Dr. Angela Catic, assistant professor in the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor. “According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of cases of chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, and HIV among older adults have all increased over the last several years. In 2013, adults 55 years and older accounted for 26 percent of Americans living with diagnosed or undiagnosed HIV.”
STDs can have a significant impact on the health of elders because they are often diagnosed late due to lack of frequent screening.
“With HIV, for example, it has already progressed to AIDS by the time it is diagnosed in 40 percent of individuals 55 years and older,” Catic said. “If HIV is untreated in elders, they tend to have a more rapid decline than younger individuals. This is most likely due to reduced immune function and the impact of other medical comorbidities.”
A common sign of HIV can be forgetfulness, anorexia, or weight loss and for the elderly these symptoms are often attributed to aging instead of considering HIV as the cause. She says that STDs such as chlamydia may often be asymptomatic, just as it is in younger individuals.
To help prevent elders from contracting an STD, Catic says there needs to be appropriate screening, just as there is in younger age groups. “Many providers do not typically inquire about sexual practices in this age group and, as a result, do not screen as they would in younger individuals with at-risk behavior,” she said.
Older adults are at the same risk as younger individuals for developing STDs. Elderly patients are advised to engage in safe sexual practices, including using a condom, with any new partners or if they are not in a committed relationship.
“If they are going to be in a new, monogamous relationship, it is important that both partners are screened for STDs before deciding not to use condoms. Older adults should be encouraged to speak openly with providers regarding their sexual practices so appropriate screening can occur,” she said.