Washington Post Examines HIV Risk, Incidence Among Heterosexual SeniorsSenior citizens are more sexually active than most Americans believe and many are not practicing safe sex because they do not think they are at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, the Washington Post reports. According to the CDC, for the first 16 years of the AIDS epidemic the rate of new AIDS cases that were diagnosed among seniors held "steady" at around 10% of all cases, but the rate began an "ominous" climb in 1997 to 11.6%, rising to 12.7% in 1998 and 13.4% in 1999. The majority of seniors become infected through heterosexual sex, and a CDC analysis using 1996 statistics (the most recent data available) showed that the number of heterosexually transmitted AIDS cases in people ages 50 and over increased 94% in men and 106% in women between 1991 and 1996. In 1996, 1,400 cases of AIDS in heterosexual people age 50 or over were reported, up from 700 in 1991. The increase in the number of cases is "forcing" health officials to "rethink attitudes about the elderly," the Post reports.
Older But Not Celibate
Widowed or divorced seniors are having more sex than most people assume, the Post reports. A 1999 AARP survey found that one-third of men and one-fourth of women between the ages of 60 and 74 have sex "at least" once a week. Seniors are having "lots of [sex], whenever they want it," according to Lisa Agate, HIV/AIDS program director at the Broward County Health Department in Florida, which gives safe sex lectures for seniors. There is a good deal of "speculation" among health professionals that Viagra has helped increase the number of seniors engaging in sexual intercourse. However, "multiple partnering" is not very common among seniors, Robert Michael, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and co-author of "The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States," said.
Most seniors do not think of themselves as being at risk for HIV because they view it as a "young person's disease." Marcia Ory, chief of behavioral medicine and public health at the National Institute on Aging, said, "It's as though once somebody is middle-aged, they think they are immune from getting a sexually transmitted disease." However, nearly 10% of Americans over 50 have at least one risk factor for HIV and most seniors do not use condoms because pregnancy is no longer a concern. In addition, most seniors do not get tested for HIV, and those who may be sick "often assume" that their illnesses are "simply part of the aging process," the Post reports. A 1994 Archives of Internal Medicine study found that at-risk seniors were one-fifth as likely to get tested for HIV as people in their twenties. The lack of testing among seniors leads to incomplete figures and makes targeting public health prevention programs difficult. HIV is a "real concern ... and there's reason to think it could become more of a problem. There is a need to make sure people are more aware of the issue. I definitely think more can be done to get information to this population," Helene Gayle, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, said. Health officials are calling for more research so they can better tailor their safe sex messages. Recently, more conferences have been focused on HIV and senior citizens have been held and more cities and counties have initiated programs like Broward's. However, HIV prevention efforts among senior citizens still have a "long way to go," Diane Zablotsky, associate sociology professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said, adding, "Folks still see the face of AIDS as a young face" (Nicolosi, Washington Post, 7/17). The Post also includes a list of HIV/AIDS resources for senior citizens, which is available online.