Persons 55 and older now account for 23 percent of HIV infections in the U.S., and the number of cases is growing for many reasons.

Only people born before 1981 know what it’s like to have lived in a country where HIV/AIDS did not exist. Since the first cases of AIDS were reported more than thirty years ago, 1.2 million Americans now live with the disease. In the U.S., infection is spread mainly by having sex or sharing drug needles with someone who is already infected.

HIV was once viewed as a young, gay men’s disease, associated with poor moral choices. Stereotyping and misinformation were common and helped in perpetuating the myths that go with the disease. Today, many know the virus can be contracted by anyone - women, and children included. Yet, what most Americans may be still unaware of is the current size of the HIV population in older adults. In fact, persons 55 and older now account for 23% of HIV infections in the U.S., and the number of cases is growing for many reasons.

Improved treatments, medications and care have prolonged life, adding years for those with the disease. The life-span of the American population has increased. Consequently, people with HIV/AIDS can carry the virus longer. Many older adults do not know they are infected because they have not been tested. The signs of HIV/AIDS can be mistaken for aches and pains of normal aging. Additionally, older adults might be coping with other diseases common to aging that can mask the signs of HIV/AIDS. Older individuals are less likely than younger to know about the disease itself and how it’s spread. Additionally, during check-ups, doctors may not ask older patients about risky behaviors, precluding a request for testing.

The sexual risk factors for older adults are specific, and they can face unique issues. 

Widowed and divorced people, who are dating again, may be less likely to think about HIV or less knowledgeable about it, and less likely to protect themselves. Women who no longer worry about getting pregnant may be less likely to use a condom and to practice safer sex. Age-related thinning and dryness of vaginal tissue can increase vulnerability in the vaginal area and may raise older women’s risk for HIV infection. The availability of erectile dysfunction medications may facilitate sex for older men who would have had sex less frequently or would have been less likely to be sexually active. Although doctors are visited more frequently, older people are less likely than younger people to discuss their sexual habits or drug use with their doctors, who in turn may be less likely to ask about these issues.

Older adults can reduce those risks by:

Getting tested before engaging in sex with a new partner and being sure the partner has been tested too. Using a condom for protection, avoiding contact with another person’s blood, and never sharing or reusing needles. Being alert to possible HIV symptoms. HIV can go undetected in older people because the illnesses associated with it—such as weight loss, pneumonia, fatigue, confusion, and vision problems— also occur more frequently with age.

Beginning 2015, over half the people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. will be people over age 50. In today’s HIV/AIDS conversations, older adults are often overlooked. If you think you’re too old to worry about the disease, think again. Every ten minutes someone in the U.S. is infected with HIV. Regardless of age, make sure it isn’t you.

To download the HIV: Know the RISKS. Get the FACTS. Older Adults and HIV/AIDS Toolkit, visit http://www.aoa.acl.gov/AoA_Programs/HPW/HIV_AIDS/toolkit.aspx

For more information on HIV, or STD/HIV services that include confidential testing and evaluation at no charge, call the Ottawa County Health Department at 918-540-2481.

Sean Bridges is Health Educator for the Delaware and Ottawa County Health Departments.