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May-June 2012, Vol. XXVII, No. 3
 
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Your Health

Education needed to help curb STDs among older people

No age limit

Many adults recall the pleasure - and perils – of youthful sex. For some, with the pleasure came concern over sexually transmitted diseases. STD risks, however, don't end as we age. It's still a potential problem for sexually active people in their 50s, 60s, or even older.

Why? Because STDs like HIV/AIDS, Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis may be asymptomatic, quietly stalking sexually active men and women who don't take adequate precautions to protect themselves. In fact, the number of STD cases among this group is growing.

For example, a 33-state study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found 15 percent of new HIV/AIDS infections occurred in people 50 and up. The age group accounted for 29 percent of all those living with AIDS (up from 17 percent in 2001) and 35 percent of all U.S. AIDS deaths. (The 2005 data is the latest available.)

Some reasons: People live and stay healthy longer and have sex later in life than before. Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs promote more sexual activity (Remember Bob Dole?) Higher divorce rates lead to more older individuals seeking and having intimate relationships with new partners who may unwittingly pass on STDs.

Victims: Their personal stories
It happened to Jane Fowler, a former reporter and founding member of the National Association on HIV Over Fifty . Brooding over a divorce she didn't want, one of Fowler's health providers convinced her to resume dating, only to learn she was HIV-positive.

Quoted in "Out" magazine, Fowler admits, "HIV meant very little to me. I knew virtually nothing about symptoms or all whom it affected. I thought of it primarily as a gay disease." Since her diagnosis, Fowler founded and directs HIV Wisdom for Older Women .

Even seemingly faithful marriages may not prevent STDs if one partner cheats. Take Ida, featured at www.BeSmartBeWell.com. "I was married, in church, doing the right thing," she says. "What could put me at risk?" Unfortunately, her husband had an affair and infected her with an STD. (BeSmartBeWell.com is the award-winning, interactive and video-based health and wellness website sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans in Illinois, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.)

Call to action
Health professionals agree the STD scourge among unsuspecting adults is serious. Though generally treatable, not all STDs can be cured. Some may require lifelong medication and lead to major medical complications. Health-related organizations have responded by developing robust and continuing educational campaigns to help combat the problem.

The American Medical Association now urges doctors to routinely test sexually active older patients outside long-term, stable relationships. Websites like www.besmartbewell.com provide multiple resources, such as CDC's hivtest.org and cdcnpin.org which also address this issue as it relates to older people.

And there's more. On Nov. 8, 2011, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced it will cover screening for STIs ("sexually transmitted infections" is another term for STDs) and two individual 20- to 30-minute individual counseling sessions per year for adults "at increased risk for STIs."

The U.S. Agency for HealthCare Research and Quality has issued pamphlets for both sexes entitled "Stay Healthy at 50+." Each contains detailed sections on STDs, ending with this sound advice: "Talk to your health care team about being tested for sexually transmitted diseases."

Talking about STDs is easier said than done due to possible embarrassment caused by discussions on such an intimate subject, but it's vital. Everybody – sexually active adults and the medical community – plays a role.

Talk frankly to your sexual partners and use protection if you have any question about your STD status. When you see a doctor, no matter how uncomfortable you may be, force yourself to talk about the possibility of having contracted (or contracting) an STD.

If you're sexually active, don't assume you're STD-free. Get tested. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have and your risks. Don't wait for your doctor to start the conversation.

As one STD-infected person put it, "No matter how good the sex, it's just not worth it to come down with a sexually transmitted disease."


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