Hanky-panky Leads to a Higher Occurrence of STDs Among Seniors

Sexually transmitted diseases aren’t just for the young and reckless.

Over the last decade, the number of older adults affected by STDs has increased. Rates have doubled among 50- to 90-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Interestingly enough, the fact that people are living longer and healthier can be part of the reason. They’re still participating in their regular activities – including sexual activities. More sex creates the potential for an increase in the diagnoses of STDs, researchers say.

Experts say older adults need to realize they are at the same risk as younger adults for developing STDs. Dr. Angela Catic, assistant professor at the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, says that because of lack of frequent screening in the older age group, an STD can have a significant impact by the time it is detected.

CDC data shows that cases of chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV have increased among older adults. In 2013, adults 55 and older accounted for 26 percent of Americans living with diagnosed or undiagnosed HIV.

“With HIV, for example, it has already progressed to AIDS by the time it is diagnosed in 40 percent of individuals 55 years and older,” Catic says. “If HIV is untreated in elders, they tend to have a more rapid decline than younger individuals.” With age comes a reduced immune function, so the body can’t fight off an STD as effectively.

Eldercare industry professionals are more frequently and openly talking about the problem and the reasons behind it, according to Derrick McDaniel, author of the book, “Eldercare, the Essential Guide to Caring For Your Loved One and Yourself.” STDs have even creeped into nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

McDaniel offers up a number of possibilities for the STD increase among older adults:

  • Men using erectile dysfunction drugs plus postmenopausal women without fear of pregnancy equals unprotected sex.
  • Older people are using on-line dating and are often unfamiliar with their partners and their sexual histories.
  • Many of today’s baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — came to maturity during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s and are reverting back to previous risky sexual behavior.
  • Many seniors were already married when sex education gained prominence and missed the safe-sex talks.
  • Seniors are embarrassed to discuss sexual issues with their doctors, which can lead to the further spread of STDs.

“Just as it happens on a college campus, increasingly, in assisted living communities, there is a lot of hanky-panky occurring,” says Lenard Kaye, director of the University of Maine Center on Aging. 

According to a 2012 article in the international medical journal, Student BMJ, more than 80 percent of 50- to 90-year-olds were sexually active.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) projects that 70 million adults in the United States will be 65 or older by the year 2030. That’s nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. Heightened awareness of STDs, regular screening and early diagnoses are as critical in older adults as they are in the young, according to the AARP.

Older adults, just as younger, are advised to engage in safe sexual practices, including using condoms, with any new partners or if they are not in a committed relationship.

“If they are going to be in a new, monogamous relationship, it is important that both partners are screened for STDs before deciding not to use condoms,” Catic says. “Older adults should be encouraged to speak openly with providers regarding their sexual practices so appropriate screening can occur.”

STD testing is free at public health departments in Virginia. Another way to keep seniors safe? McDaniel says to make condoms easily accessible where seniors live and congregate.

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About the author

Kim O'Brien Root

Kim O'Brien Root has been a reporter for 20 years previously working for the Daily Press and The Roanoke Times. She's been a freelance journalist since 2010, balancing writing with being a chronic volunteer. She lives in Hampton with her husband, a fellow journalist, two children and a dog.