If the title of this article is meant to shock or be misconstrued, it is neither. This week’s topic of discussion is not about American youth and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), rather we will delve into an unheeded demographic where STDs are becoming evermore prevalent: the elderly. Unfortunately, senior citizens in our society are too often overlooked and sometimes outright ignored. Nowhere might this be more apparent than in the lack of focus, education and care for the aged who are becoming infected with STDs at an alarming rate. This must change.
While older people tend to be mindful of their blood sugar, blood pressure, cardiac care and more; many are startlingly ignorant of the epidemic that’s taken hold of their communities. STDs? Why would those even apply to them if they are not of child rearing or producing age? One reason is the lack of basic education and effective communication by health care providers. Another impetus is societal neglect. Simply put, older people are marginalized when it comes to many relevant public service health campaigns. As a result, they do not consider themselves a high-risk group for STDs. This false sense of immunity coupled with the fact that older people tend to have more compromised immune systems, increases the probability that the elderly will acquire a sexually communicated disease.
Needn't we forget that many senior citizens are products of the Baby Boomer Generation. They came of age during the sexual revolution. Their attitudes towards sex combined with the use of drugs like Viagra & Cialis have made an the active sex life well into retirement all but commonplace.
In late 2018, the US News & World Report published an article that encompassed some sobering statistics: "A recent analysis of patients on Athenahealth's network found that patients over age 60 account for the biggest increase of in-office treatments for sexually transmitted infections. The report found that in adults over age 60, diagnosis rates for herpes simplex, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B, trichomoniasis and chlamydia rose 23 percent between 2014 and 2017.” In 2014, Psychology Today published a piece with the following lead in sentence: “According to the Center for Disease Control, among our senior citizen population sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are spreading like wildfire. Since 2007, incidence of syphilis among seniors is up by 52 percent, with chlamydia up 32 percent." The examples above were published in the mainstream press. And while there has been much written on this particular phenomenon, the stories tend to be buried in the back pages of a newspaper or relegated to the preserve of medical journals.
To date, the elderly remain under-informed regarding the dangers of having unprotected intercourse. None of this is deliberate. Conversing about older people engaging in sex can be unnerving. Western culture, particularly in the US, espouses youth and beauty as a paragon. And by default, it also creates a “truism” that sexual desire and health is the preserve of youth. Furthermore, older people are perceived by many as lacking in carnal desires. This is utterly false (one need only visit a nursing home and observe for themselves). The combination of these misconceived notions as well as stereotypes and inattention has led to the rise of an overlooked epidemic. Indeed, many senior citizens mistakenly believe that they are quite literally immune, physically and socially from the vulnerability to STDs. After menopause, women no longer need to “worry” about pregnancy and hence birth control. This is as a much a silver lining for men who are less likely to be harangued about adequate birth control and precautions. Of course, aging comes with bitter-sweet sentiments and physical changes but it also represents a reversal into an era when many sexual decisions are not fraught with worry.
The emergence and the resultant mini-pandemic with the rise of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s facilitated a coordinated global focus on sexually transmitted diseases and health. Herculean efforts were made to educate the masses about the properties and risk factors associated with HIV and AIDS. In general, a world-wide education campaign worked and HIV/AIDS was contained. As a result of billions of public and private dollars allocated to researching and developing advanced antiviral therapies, what was once a near certain death sentence is now, while chronic, manageable. But most critical was the focus of public service campaigns and education. A similar level of streamlined communication is needed to protect our seniors from the various sexually transmitted diseases that are ravaging their communities.
Our senior citizens - many of whom have done much to service their country - should not be cast out and relegated to the heap when it comes to essential medical care and education regarding sexual health. The status quo is an indignity. Basic healthcare starts with basic humanity and full disclosure for all; not prejudicial disclosure based on age. By glossing over the STD epidemic among our senior population, our society is abdicating a responsibility to some of our most vulnerable citizens. At TQC, it is our hope that this article will provide a much needed catalyst to spur a coordinated effort to educate, contain and help eradicate sexually transmitted diseases among older Americans.