Assessing the risk, educating patients and clients

Most people would be surprised to know that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly half of Americans living with HIV in 2016 were aged 50 and older. HIV is newly diagnosed in thousands of older adults every year. 

Although HIV risk factors are the same for people of any age, professionals can often overlook HIV as a potential diagnosis in seniors. As a result, HIV testing is less common in seniors than in other age groups.

Without proper education and testing, seniors may be at higher risk for transmission of HIV. There are a number of reasons why.

Nearly 40% of older adults diagnosed with HIV in 2018 believe they contracted it through heterosexual intercourse. Because the fear of an unplanned pregnancy has passed, sexually active seniors are less likely to use condoms and other barrier methods of contraception, putting them at increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

Compounding this issue, vaginal atrophy and dryness in post-menopausal women can also lead to an easier transmission of the virus. As skin becomes thinner, microscopic tears can form as reproductive areas age.

Older people are also less likely to discuss sexual activity or drug use with their health care providers, according to the CDC. Because of the stigma associated with these topics, many seniors are embarrassed to discuss these issues, or simply do not consider themselves at risk for HIV. As a result, fewer seniors are tested. 

In seniors, signs of HIV can often be mistaken for symptoms of aging or of age-related conditions. Consequently, testing to diagnose a condition may not include HIV testing. As a result, HIV is more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage in many older people. Diagnosing HIV at a late stage also means a late start to treatment with HIV medicines and possibly more damage to the immune system.

Specific to the older population, the CDC recommends that everyone over 50 years old get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine health care and that people at higher risk of HIV get tested more often. Health care providers should raise this discussion with their sexually active patients, recommend HIV testing and assess their patients’ future risks for HIV.

The outlook for people diagnosed with HIV has significantly improved over the last 30 years. Seniors may not be aware that HIV, when properly treated, can be a manageable condition.  Taking medication every day can make the viral load undetectable, and those who stay virally suppressed can live a long and healthy life with little-to-no risk of transmitting HIV to others.

Educating ourselves and others is the key to stopping the spread of this virus, especially among older adults. Open, honest discussions with your senior patients, clients, and their families can remove some of the stigma associated with HIV, AIDS, and related topics. Visit the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websites for more information on senior HIV statistics and how to be a better advocate for those in your circle.

If the medical needs of a senior client, customer, or patient have become too much for them to manage on their own, it may be time to talk about community-based senior living. Oasis Senior Advisors provide a free service to older adults and their families as they navigate senior housing options. Contact Oasis at 888-455-5838. One call can provide you with many solutions to the issues that seniors, families, and caregivers face every day.