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Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Older Adults


An older adult consulting with his doctor

It may strike some as surprising, but the rates of sexually transmitted disease (STD) in older adults are rising. Older people who are sexually active may be at risk for diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydial infection, genital herpes, hepatitis B, genital warts and trichomoniasis.

Almost anyone who is sexually active is also at risk of being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that adults over the age of 50 consistently represent around half of the population of those living with diagnosed HIV in the U.S.

As age does not protect anyone from sexually transmitted diseases, it is essential that older adults and their caregivers educate themselves about the risks of STDs. 

Factors Contributing to Increase in STDs in Older Adults:

New trends in medicine have provided solutions to erectile dysfunction. These drugs have enabled more men to engage in sexual activity throughout their older years. According to the CDC, cases of STDs in adults over the age of 50 in the 2000s have increased significantly from the averages in this same age group recorded in the 1990s.

America is also experiencing a high mid-life divorce rate. Consequently, older adults are looking for dates online, which lowers the chance that they know the background and sexual history of people they are dating. Older adults are also less likely to perceive themselves at risk for contracting STDs.

Many older adults also may not have received formal safe sex education when they were younger. Safe sex and STD prevention education became prevalent in the 1980s when HIV/AIDS was discovered. During that time period, many current older adults were married and middle aged and may not have had the chance to receive the same education received by younger adults at that time. Without this education, older adults may not realize the health benefits of engaging in safe, protected sex even without the concern of pregnancy. 

Concerns for Older Adults with STDs

Some older adults may be embarrassed to ask a doctor to be tested for STDs. Because of this, they are less likely to be diagnosed with an STD in its early stages, and are unable to benefit from the medications available for early stage treatment. Many STDs do not have symptoms, so many older adults also do not realize they are infected until serious and possibly permanent damage has occurred.

This is commonly the case with HIV/AIDS in older adults. Doctors may also misdiagnose early symptoms of HIV infection—fatigue, weakness and memory changes—as signs of aging, or another disease. Older adults themselves may also disregard these symptoms for the same reason. However, older adults who have been diagnosed with AIDS tend to have higher death rates according to the CDC, potentially due to complicating problems like heart disease, diabetes or an aging immune system, so it is important for them to be accurately diagnosed as soon as possible.

Conversations About STDs:

We should encourage our loved ones to speak with their primary-care physicians to start a dialogue about STDs. Even though we may assume doctors will address all important aspects of our loved ones wellbeing, some doctors avoid the topic because they feel uncomfortable discussing it with their patients. They might also make the mistake in thinking that older people are not sexually active.

Problems such as these make it imperative for us as caregivers to keep our loved ones informed about the dangers of STDs until comprehensive sex-ed measures are established for older adults.

A version of this article appeared in the Private Health News.

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