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Aging: The New Face of HIV?

Although the CDC says that young women ages 15 to 39 are the largest age demographic of women living with HIV/AIDS in this country, a trend of women being diagnosed in their 40s and 50s is emerging. The CDC also estimates that 11 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS are age 50 or older, and the new cases among people in that category are growing twice as fast as the new diagnoses in the 13 to 49 age group.30

Women over age 50 continue to be misdiagnosed or never diagnosed at all. Statistics are showing that many midlife women are being diagnosed later and are often coming into medical care with AIDS.31,32

New infections among this population are driven in part by social and biological factors. For example:

  • Older women are less likely to have accurate information on HIV transmission, less likely to see themselves as at risk, and less likely to undergo HIV testing than younger women.33,34,35
  • Many people age 50 or older are newly single, are widowed, or have grown children, leaving more time for sexual activity.
  • New treatments for erectile dysfunction facilitate sex.
  • Older people may be unfamiliar with condom use or reluctant to use them because there is no need for birth control after menopause and condoms can make it difficult to maintain an erection.
  • Vaginal dryness is common among menopausal women, making tiny cuts and tears during sex more likely.

When older people do not have accurate information about HIV transmission, the risks associated with those factors are intensified. To shine attention on this increasing trend, HRSA published an issue of HRSA CAREAction titled “The Graying of HIV.” (PDF – 295 KB)

Looking Forward

A diagnosis of HIV/AIDS was almost always a death sentence in the early years but support systems and access to care are helping newly diagnosed women reframe their lives. “Health, Hardship and Renewal: A Research Study of the Economic Strategies of Women Living With HIV/AIDS,” a recent study of low-income women who are living with HIV/AIDS in Chicago, shows that as physically devastating as an HIV/AIDS diagnosis may be, many women have gone on to improve the quality of their lives. The researchers say that the diagnosis often makes women take stock of their lives and becomes a turning point that gets women into medical care. The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program can help link women to services and support systems so that they can create a positive new chapter for them and their families.

Today with access to antiretroviral therapies there have been significant reductions in morbidity and mortality enabling women to live more productive lives and have a potentially normal life span. One woman who has been a long-time client of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program has been able to stabilize her health enough to get a college degree and a good job with health insurance to support herself and her children. She says, “Once I figured that this disease wasn’t going to kill me, I decided that it wasn’t going to define me either. Thanks to the help I have gotten since my diagnosis, I am writing my own life script. HIV isn’t writing it for me.”

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