Stereotypes of how the elderly spend their time may include activities like doing crossword puzzles, knitting or playing Bingo. But in reality, aging in today’s world is different than it may have been in previous generations. Many seniors are more active and social than ever. And the senior community is up to some racier activities than you may think – like sex. Unprotected sex.
“In recent years, chlamydia cases have increased by 31 percent among people 65 and older, while syphilis has spiked by 52 percent,” says Katarzyna Budzynska, M.D., an internal medicine doctor at Henry Ford Health. “Additionally, 10 percent of new HIV cases occur in people aged 50 and over.”
But why such a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among seniors? It’s actually due to a combination of factors, including:
- No fear of pregnancy, therefore no condom use
- An abundance of free time, as most seniors are retired
- More single partners, as a result of more widows and widowers in that age group
- Less fear of STD side effects like infertility, since seniors can no longer bear children
- A false sense of safety because STDs are seen as a young person problem
But here’s the real deal: for older people, the risks that come with STDs are just as unpleasant as they are for younger patients – and potentially more dangerous.
“Older people are more likely to have complicating conditions like heart disease, diabetes and an aging immune system. STDs are also known to cause abdominal pain, scarring, and put additional stress on your immune system,” explains Dr. Budzynska. “For example, syphilis, if not treated, can cause a secondary infection in the brain or heart that can be fatal.”
No one knows whether this issue has been around for years as a dirty little secret or whether it’s a more recent phenomenon. But one thing is crystal clear: something has to be done to get a handle on the numbers and improve the problem and the outcomes.
Here’s what some advocates think may help:
- Bringing attention to the effects of unprotected sex during physical exams and doctor visits to emphasize the risk
- Removing the stigma of having conversations about sex with our elders. We speak to seniors about erectile dysfunction and drugs to remedy it, so why not focus on disease prevention, too?
- Directing marketing for condoms towards the 65-plus crowd. This may help debunk the myth that STDs are a younger population problem. Part of the reason that perception exists is because seniors don’t see themselves reflected in that messaging or imagery.
Living well means all around good health practices, be they nutritional, physical, emotional or sexual. Addressing all of those factors – no matter our age — will help us lead safer lives, both inside the bedroom and out.
Dr. Katarzyna Budzynska sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Harbortown in Detroit.