Seniors and HIV/AIDS: the Statistics Might Surprise You

Related topics: Health & Wellness, Caregivers, Senior Life, Legal & Financial

September 18 is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day

Seniors doing computer research about HIV

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that the number of seniors who are living with HIV/AIDS is increasing. At present, over one-quarter of all HIV/AIDS patients are over 50. Yale Medical School experts project that by 2017, 50% of all people in the U.S. living with HIV will be over 50. According to last year’s White House AIDS and Aging meeting, "Older age is not a safety net that protects people from getting HIV. Many issues surrounding HIV among older adults will only increase as our country faces the continuing graying of our nation's HIV epidemic."

Two trends are behind this increase. First, the development of more effective HIV drug therapies in the 1990s has allowed many patients who contracted the virus decades ago to survive and thrive into their senior years. Many of these patients are managing the disease successfully, though they face health challenges related to the disease and side effects of treatment.

But new cases of HIV/AIDS are also on the rise in our senior population. What factors contribute to this increase?

"It can't happen to me"

Many people believe the stereotype that only young people need to worry about HIV/AIDS. But the truth is, seniors are also at risk. Today’s higher divorce rates, changing attitudes about sexuality and older adults, and the use of Viagra and similar drugs mean that seniors are now more likely than ever to be exposed to the virus. When they are exposed, they are more likely to become infected, for several reasons:

  • As we age, our immune system is less able to fight off infection.
  • Underlying health conditions can make us more likely to contract communicable diseases.
  • Changes to the skin make it easier for the virus to enter the bloodstream.

Despite this higher risk of contracting the virus, seniors are least likely to understand the risks, take precautions against being exposed, get tested for the virus, or ask that a partner be tested. They often find it embarrassing to bring up the subject with their healthcare providers, not wanting to admit to at-risk behavior, and fearing the stigma of the disease. Many doctors subscribe to the fiction that seniors aren't sexually active and fail to bring up the subject. The U.S. Administration on Aging calls seniors "an invisible at-risk population."

HIV/AIDS may be overlooked in the senior patient. It can be years before any symptoms appear, and the first signs can be minor. AIDS symptoms can mimic other age-related conditions. For example, the most common type of pneumonia in AIDS patients can be mistaken for congestive heart failure; HIV-related dementia may be misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's; the fatigue and weight loss caused by AIDS might be interpreted as just "normal aging." But early diagnosis is vital so that treatment can begin as soon as possible.

Testing is easy

Seniors can ask their healthcare provider for an easy, quick HIV/AIDS test. Local hospitals and health centers also offer the test. In most states the results are private, and the test can be given anonymously. To find HIV testing near you, visit the website or the National HIV and STD Testing Resources test location finder. Medicare covers one HIV screening per year. Home test kits are also available. Only one home test is currently approved by the FDA (you can read about this test here).

Aging with HIV

Thanks to improved medical treatment, HIV-positive people can live well into their senior years. However, living with the virus complicates the management of other diseases that are common as we grow older. Some conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, dementia and kidney disease, are likely to develop earlier in those with the virus, due to the effects of the virus and side effects of the powerful drugs used to keep it under control. HIV and the drug therapies that treat it can also worsen conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis and hypertension.

The social and financial toll is also high. Seniors who are living with HIV face high medical bills. Many feel stigmatized and isolated, raising the risk of depression. Family caregiving is complicated by the need for safety precautions and the complexity of the senior's medical regimen. And seniors who received the diagnosis back in the 1980s and 1990s may have failed to save for retirement, not anticipating that they would live to see 65 and beyond. It is important to learn about special Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits for people with HIV/AIDS.

Increasing awareness

We can't afford to allow embarrassment to stand in the way of informing seniors about the risks. And we can't allow the stigma of the disease to stand in the way of providing compassionate, competent care for seniors who are living with HIV/AIDS. Healthcare organizations that serve seniors are urging older adults, their families and professional caregivers to educate themselves about the prevention and treatment of HIV in seniors. Here are some good resources:

AIDS and Aging Week logo

The AIDS Institute sponsors National HIV/AIDS & Aging Awareness Day and promotes action for social change through public policy research, advocacy and education. This year's theme is "Aging is a part of life; HIV doesn't have to be."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers information about HIV/AIDS in people 50+, including information about protecting older adults from getting the virus and other consumer resources.

The Act Against AIDS website offers consumer information and an HIV test finder.

Growing Older with the Epidemic: HIV and Aging is a comprehensive online booklet from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

See AIDS: 30 Years Later, which recently appeared in the AARP Magazine, for portraits of people over 50 who are living with the disease.