December 09, 2014

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Single? Sexual? Be safe

Recently, a friend and her sister visited a retirement community in our neighborhood. They chatted up several residents, including the sweet, 90-year-old widower who’d lost his beloved wife some months before. When they turned to leave, he asked the sister for her phone number. Since she is 50 and married, they laughed it off. Not long after, they heard that their elderly Don Juan had found himself a girlfriend in a nearby senior living community and was visiting her regularly.

The anecdote is cute, but it also points to a larger reality. We are never too old to enjoy sex—that’s the entire premise of this website—but somewhere on the road to the golden years, single seniors have thrown youthful caution to the winds when it comes to safe sex. The result is that sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as Chlamydia and syphilis, are spreading more quickly among people over 55 than among any other age group except 20-24 year olds, according to a 2010 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Even more alarming—one in four people with HIV/AIDS is over 50. In the Sunbelt, where large communities of seniors live, the rates of increase are off the charts: In two counties in Arizona cases of syphilis and Chlamydia among those over 55 rose 87 percent between 2005 and 2009; in central Florida, the increase was 71 percent, according to this article in Psychology Today. News reports use words like “epidemic” and “skyrocketing” to describe these increases. Medicare has begun offering free testing for STIs, but most (95 percent) of seniors remain unscreened.

What the heck is going on here? What happened to all those lectures in responsibility and self-control we subjected our kids to? What seems to be happening is that we are, luckily, more long-lived and healthier than our forebears. We are also newly empowered with drugs to maintain erections for men and to make sex more comfortable and enjoyable for women. All the years of hard work, career-building, and childrearing are in the rearview mirror. Many of us find ourselves alone and treading tentatively back into this brave, new world of sex and dating. Add to this the sometimes freewheeling life in retirement communities (some of which are the size of small cities), which create hotbeds (no pun intended) of people of similar age and background—kind of like a college dorm.

Trouble is, unlike kids in a dorm, seniors don’t have to worry about pregnancy and aren’t nearly as well-informed about the risks of unprotected sex. Condom use for those over 60 is the lowest for any age group (6 percent vs. 40 percent for college-age males). And condoms, in case you’ve forgotten, provide the only dependable protection against STIs, and even they aren’t effective against every sexually transmitted bug.

Also unlike their much younger counterparts, older folks have a less robust immune system, so the chances of catching and spreading infections are higher. Plus, many STIs are asymptomatic, so the person doesn’t know he or she is infected—and that the STI is degrading the immune system even further. Finally, doctors rarely think to ask Grandpa about his sex life in the normal course of an exam, even if he has classic symptoms of an STI.

All this adds up to a lively Petri dish of bugs circulating around the singles scene. Yet, prevention is so easy, and the cost of ignorance or of ignoring common-sense precautions is high. So, ladies, even if the prospective partner is someone you’ve known all your life, don’t assume you’re familiar with the intimate details of his sexual forays. Others have walked this path before—and are paying the price. Jane Fowler, 71, and founder of HIV Wisdom for Older Women, was infected with HIV by just such a friend when she was 55 and now advocates for more information and support for older women with AIDS. I’d suggest that if you’re dating, stick a couple condoms in your purse right with the lipstick. And get yourself tested if you’ve ever had unprotected sex. And read this series of posts about STIs on MiddlesexMD. The rule of thumb these days—better safe than sorry.

STDs for Grownups: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You. A Lot

Sit down, Girlfriend. We need to talk.

Remember those uncomfortable discussions you had with your kids back in the day? You know, the birds-and-bees and how-not-to-get-pregnant talks?

Well, now it’s your turn to listen. This is your middle-age sex talk.

At some point in life, you’ll probably be alone, demographics and life expectancies being what they are. Maybe you already are. Maybe you’re newly divorced. Or widowed.

And maybe, after being married for many years you’re not ready to write off a relationship—or sex—for the rest of your life.

That’s great! We’ve already discussed the health benefits of sex. And we’ve talked about the research that shows that older women really like sex and are good at it.

But the singles scene is now a completely different ball game from those long-ago days when you were a player. “When I was younger we only worried about getting pregnant or getting crabs. Now that I’m divorced, I realize it’s a whole new world!” said a woman on one health website.

“In my practice I see a lot of older single women who don’t know the rules of dating,” says Mary Jo Rapini, psychotherapist and MiddlesexMD advisor. “They’re looking for someone to desire them again, and they’re much too easy with letting sex happen. They aren’t comfortable with demanding that the guy wear a condom.”

You may not need protection against pregnancy any more, but you sure need protection against a cornucopia of STDs that has flourished since your first date.

STDs affect every age group, but rates of infection are growing fastest among older people. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 15 percent of new HIV infections are in those over 50—and death rates are rising, too. In 2008, the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections noted that infection rates among those over 45 had doubled in less than 10 years. Research at Indiana University in 2010 indicated that condom use was lowest in that age group. Maybe there’s some connection there?

Besides general lack of awareness, a few physiological factors make it easier for older women to become infected. The thin, dry vaginal walls that accompany loss of estrogen create small tears and microscopic vaginal bleeding during sex, thus offering a warm welcome to invading nasties. Further, our pH balance tends to be less acidic after menopause, creating a friendly environment for bacterial infection.

So what’s a newly single older gal to do?

Empower yourself, says Rapini. Take a page from your kids’ playbook and insist on safe sex. This isn’t about being difficult or demanding, it’s about your health, and you have every right to safeguard it. Here are the safe sex rules:

  • Wait to have sex. Isn’t this the advice you give your kids? What’s the rush? Date for a while and get to know the person. A lusty first date could fizzle on the second or third. And then you might be stuck with an unpleasant reminder of a fleeting passion.
  • Get tested. And insist that your partner does as well. How can I ask that? you’re thinking. Girlfriend, this is how you empower yourself. You don’t take chances. “If the guy has nothing to hide, he shouldn’t resist.” says Rapini.
Once you’ve decided that sex is on the horizon, you could say something like, “I’m getting tested for STDs, and I think it’s a good idea for you as well.” That creates a level playing field and opens the door to discussion later.
  • Share the results of your screening. This gently opens the door to honest talk about sex. If you’ve never talked openly about sex before, it’s time to change. “If you stay passive you’re less likely to have good sex.” says Rapini.
  • Continue to use condoms for at least six months after a screening. Some infections, such as HIV, don’t show up immediately. Always keep latex condoms with you, just in case. If a condom is used correctly, it provides 90 percent protection. It’s less effective against the genital herpes virus or the HPV virus because those viruses are more widespread on the genital area.
  • Take care of your vagina. We’ve talked (and talked) about good vaginal hygiene. In addition to the infection-fighting properties of a healthy vagina, the sex will be better and more comfortable, too.
  • Keep communicating. This may be uncomfortable at first because our generation didn’t talk about sex, but this is the time of life for discovery. Learn what you like, and learn to ask for it.

Empowerment, remember? Respect yourself enough to insist on safe sex.

Let us know how it goes.

STIs--Not Just Your Daughter's (or Granddaughter's) Concern

She's 54 years old. She's spent most of her adult life in a long-term monogamous relationship. She's just been diagnosed with genital herpes.

This happens more often than you might think.

Even I -- who should know better! -- have been guilty of age bias when it comes to testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs, also called STDs, for sexually transmitted diseases).

In my former practice, when a 20-year-old came in presenting with symptoms (discharge, discomfort, irritation) that might indicate an STI, I would automatically screen her. When a 50- or 60-year-old came to me with the same symptoms, I was more likely to ask before I tested: "Is this a possibility?" If she said "no," I tended to trust that. I was trusting my patients. They were trusting their partners.

Times have changed.

Over the past decade, STI rates among people 45 and older more than doubled. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that senior citizens accounted for 24 percent of total AIDS cases, up from 17 percent in 2001.

Researchers point to climbing divorce rates at mid-life, the rise of online dating services, the increasing number of men availing themselves of treatment for erectile disfunction. And all of these are contributing factors, I'm sure. But in my experience, the most likely cause of the up-tick in STIs among women past their child-bearing years is lack of awareness and prevention.

If you know that pregnancy is not a possibility, why use a condom?

Unfortunately, the risk of contracting STIs -- including syphilis, gonorrhea, genital herpes, HPV, hepatitis B, and HIV -- does not end at menopause. In fact, sexually active postmenopausal women may be more vulnerable than younger women; the thinning, more delicate genital tissue that comes with age is also more prone to small cuts or tears that provide pathways for infection.

And -- it's not fair, but there it is -- with almost every STI, exposed men are less likely to experience symptoms, simply because they don't have the equivalent of a cervix and a vagina and the skin of a vulva. The kind, older gentleman who gave my 54-year-old patient genital herpes might honestly not have known he was infected.

These days, when a 50-or-60-ish woman shows up in my office with symptoms that point to a possible STI, I go ahead and screen. I'll say, "I understand this is not a likely outcome, but I want to make sure I'm checking all possibilities."

Worry about STI can be a real drag on sexual enjoyment. We'll talk about what you can do to insure that contracting an STI is not a possibility for you in my next post: "When Was the Last Time You Used a Condom?"