Several studies in recent years have shown a dramatic rise in STDs among older adults—and the low-end of the age range really isn’t all that old. A 2008 study in the international health journal Sexually Transmitted Infections showed STD rates had doubled among people 45 and older in less than a decade.
More recent studies have affirmed the rise, says Kevin Pearce, spokesman for the Peninsula Health District, the division of the Virginia Department of Health that serves Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg and James City and York Counties.
“A lot of people are recognizing it’s a growing problem,” Pearce says.
A big part of the reason? People are living longer and living healthier. As a result, they’re still participating in their regular activities— including sexual activities. More sex creates the potential for an increase in diagnoses of STDs, researchers say.
One study showed that more than 80 percent of 50- to 90-year-olds were sexually active, according to a 2012 article in the international medical journal, Student BMJ. The article cited studies showing an increase in cases of syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea among 45- to 64-year-olds in the United Kingdom, United States and Canada.
Other reasons suggested as contributing factors include the rise of erectile dysfunction medications—such as Viagra, introduced in 1998—and a lower rate of condom use among those over 50. A 2010 study done at Indiana University found that people over age 45 had the lowest rate of condom use.
Rachel von Simson, a British medical student who co-authored the article in Student BMJ, suggested that baby boomers who brought about the sexual revolution might have simply stayed sexually active. Baby boomers are considered those born between 1946 and 1964.
“For a lot of individuals in the older population, their behaviors when they were teens are more dangerous now,” leading to an increased risk of STDs, says Pearce.
Baby boomers, who became sexually active following the introduction of the birth control pill, but before the onset of AIDS, might not have had as much awareness about STDs, one Australian researcher suggested. Less-effective immune systems—which come with age—can elevate the risk as well by increasing vulnerability to STDs and HIV/AIDS.
The AARP projects that by the year 2030, 70 million adults in the U.S. will be age 65 or older. That’s nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population.
The good news is, the number of STDs in those 45 and older is still much lower than in younger populations, especially the high-risk 15 to 24 age group. However, some researchers believe the rate could be low because older people might be less likely to seek treatment.
The need for safe sex among all age groups remains. And that might mean more of a need to get the word out to older people who aren’t as social media-savvy as their younger counterparts, Pearce says.
Heightened awareness, regular screening and early diagnoses are as critical in older adults as they are in the young, according to the AARP. STD testing is free at public health departments in Virginia.
“If you’re sexually active, you should be tested and protect yourself,” Pearce says. “Those messages remain.”