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STDs Have Doubled and Tripled Among Older Adults

STD poster for syphilis

Traditionally, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have been associated with younger adults, but the results of a new study suggest it’s time healthcare providers focus more attention on sexually active adults aged 45 and older. A study in the Student BMJ reports that the number of many common STDs have doubled and even tripled among older adults during the past decade.

Most older adults are sexually active

According to a study about sexual activity in later life, more than 80% of adults age 50 to 90 are sexually active. Engaging in sexual activity can provide a variety of health benefits; for example, it can reduce stress, enhance the immune system, improve intimacy, help lower blood pressure, strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, and reduce the risk of prostate cancer.

A downside of sex, however, can include the development of STDs, which was the subject of the new research reported by Rachel von Simson, a medical student at King’s College London, and Ranjababu Kulasegaram, consultant genitourinary physician at St. Thomas’ Hospital London.

Among the researchers’ findings

  • In the United Kingdom (UK), new diagnoses of HIV in adults older than 50 doubled between 2009 and 2009
  • Among the new diagnoses of HIV in the UK, 62% were “late,” and older adults with late HIV are twice as likely to die than younger adults who are diagnosed with late disease
  • In the United States, the number of diagnoses of infectious syphilis among adults aged 45-54 nearly tripled (706 to 2,056) between 2000 and 2009, and more than doubled (179 to 493) among adults aged 55 to 64.
  • Cases of chlamydia in the US saw a similar rise, nearly tripling in adults aged 45 to 54 between 2000 and 2010 (from 5,601 to 16,106), and more than tripling among those aged 55-64 during the same time frame (1,110 to 3,523).
  • In Canada, the number of cases of gonorrhea among adults aged 40 to 59 nearly tripled (379 to 1,502), while Chlamydia cases more than tripled (997 to 3,387) and infectious syphilis rocketed from 34 to 527

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Given these statistics, two questions rise: Why have the rates of STDs risen so significantly among older adults, and what can be done to change them? Unfortunately, “without a great deal of evidence about the reason for the increase in sexually transmitted infections,” noted the investigators, “it is difficult to know what strategies will work to raise awareness and control the spread of infection.”

Some possible explanations include the physical changes that occur among post-menopausal women, which makes them more susceptible to STDs, and the use of erectile dysfunction medications among men.

The finding that some STDs have doubled or tripled among older adults is a cause for concern and prompted the authors of the report to conclude that “doctors should maintain a low threshold for investigating sexually transmitted infections in older adults” and discuss STDs among patients of all ages.

von Simson R, Kulasegaram R. Sexual health and the older adult. Student BMJ 2012; 20:e688

Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons