A growing number of older people now have HIV/AIDS.
Almost one-fourth of all people with HIV/AIDS in this country are age 50 and older.
This is because doctors are finding HIV more often than ever before in older people and because improved treatments are helping people with the disease live longer.
But there may even be many more cases than we know about.
One reason may be that doctors do not always test older people for HIV/AIDS and so may miss some cases during routine check-ups. Another may be that older people often mistake signs of HIV/AIDS for the aches and pains of normal aging, so they are less likely than younger people to get tested for the disease. Also, they may be ashamed or afraid of being tested. People age 50 and older may have the virus for years before being tested. By the time they are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, the virus may be in the late stages.
The number of HIV/AIDS cases among older people is growing every year because:
- Older Americans know less about HIV/AIDS than younger people do. They do not always know how it spreads or the importance of using condoms, not sharing needles, getting tested for HIV, and talking about it with their doctor.
- Healthcare workers and educators often do not talk with middle-aged and older people about HIV/AIDS prevention.
- Older people are less likely than younger people are to talk about their sex lives or drug use with their doctors.
- Doctors may not ask older patients about their sex lives or drug use or talk to them about risky behaviors.
Facts About HIV/AIDS
You may have read or heard things that are not true about how you get HIV/AIDS. Here are the FACTS:
- You cannot get HIV through casual contact such as shaking hands or hugging a person with HIV/AIDS.
- You cannot get HIV from using a public telephone, drinking fountain, restroom, swimming pool, whirlpool, or hot tub.
- You cannot get HIV from sharing a drink.
- You cannot get HIV from being coughed or sneezed on by a person with HIV/AIDS.
- You cannot get HIV from giving blood.
- You cannot get HIV from a mosquito bite.
Anyone facing a serious disease like HIV/AIDS may become very depressed. This is a special problem for older people, who may not have a strong network of friends or family who can help. At the same time, they also may be coping with other diseases common to aging such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart problems. As the HIV/AIDS gets worse, many will need help getting around and caring for themselves. Older people with HIV/AIDS need support and understanding from their doctors, family, and friends.
HIV/AIDS can affect older people in yet another way. Many younger people who are infected turn to their parents and grandparents for financial support and nursing care. Older people who are not themselves infected by the virus may find they have to care for their own children with HIV/AIDS and then sometimes for their orphaned or HIV-infected grandchildren. Taking care of others can be mentally, physically, and financially draining. This is especially true for older caregivers. The problem becomes even worse when older caregivers have AIDS or other serious health problems.
Remember, it is important to get tested for HIV/AIDS early. Early treatment increases the chances of living longer.
HIV/AIDS in People of Color and Women
The number of HIV/AIDS cases is rising in people of color across the country. More than half of all people with HIV/AIDS are African American or Hispanic.
The number of cases of HIV/AIDS for women has also been growing over the past few years. The rise in the number of cases in women of color age 50 and older has been especially steep. Most got the virus from sex with infected partners. Many others got HIV through shared needles.
Because women may live longer than men, and because of the rising divorce rate, many widowed, divorced, and separated women are dating these days. Like older men, many older women may be at risk because they do not know how HIV/AIDS is spread. Women who no longer worry about getting pregnant may be less likely to use a condom and to practice safe sex. Also, vaginal dryness and thinning often occur as women age. When that happens, sexual activity can lead to small cuts and tears that raise the risk for HIV/AIDS.
Treatment and Prevention
There is no cure for HIV/AIDS. But if you become infected, there are drugs that help keep the HIV virus in check and slow the spread of HIV in the body. Doctors are now using a combination of drugs called HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) to treat HIV/AIDS. Although it is not a cure, HAART is greatly reducing the number of deaths from AIDS in this country.
Remember, there are things you can do to keep from getting HIV/AIDS. Practice the steps below to lower your risk:
- If you are having sex, make sure your partner has been tested and is free of HIV. Use male or female condoms (latex or polyurethane) during sexual intercourse.
- Do not share needles or any other equipment used to inject drugs.
- Get tested if you or your partner had a blood transfusion between 1978 and 1985.
- Get tested if you or your partner has had an operation or blood transfusion in a developing country at any time.
Based on editorial content provided by the NIH/National Institute on Aging from its "AgePage" series.