April is National STD Awareness and Family Planning Month, and the CDC and NIH are encouraging Americans of all ages to join in observance by educating themselves about and raising awareness of sexual health issues. Though it may seem odd or even taboo to think about, sexual health is still very much a concern for seniors, and understanding common risks that many seniors face is an important step in promoting greater overall sexual health.
Sex and seniors
Although it's not a topic that's commonly thought about in regard to seniors, the fact is that for many of these individuals, sexuality is very much an important part of their lives. A recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine surveyed adults from ages 57 to 85 in the U.S. about their sexual habits, and the results may surprise you. Results revealed that 73 percent of respondents aged 57-64, 53 percent of those aged 64-75 and even 26 percent of 75- 85-year-olds reported being sexually active in an average month, NBC reported.
Yet despite these possibly surprising numbers, the survey also revealed that only 22 percent of women and 38 percent of men had discussed sexual health issues with their doctor since turning 50. While it's clear there is a disparity between the number of sexually active seniors and the number of seniors discussing sexual activity with their doctor, what is less clear is why it is so important for seniors to be versed in sexual health issues. Georgeanne Patmios of the National Institute on Aging told NBC that sex can be an indicator of overall health, with sexual difficulties sometimes even pointing to other health concerns like cancer and diabetes.
Health risks for seniors
Despite age and other bodily changes, seniors are not at all at a reduced risk of sexual health problems. It is still just as important as ever that seniors take the same safe sex precautions as everyone else, as STDs like syphilis, gonorrhea and even HIV/AIDS are just as possible to contract in one's older years. In fact, in recent years, HIV and AIDS have become a growing problem among the senior community specifically. A recent study reported by CBS revealed that the number of people over 50 living with AIDS doubled in the period between 2000 and 2009. Other STDs saw similar growth over the same period. Given the low percentage of seniors who actively talk to their doctors about their sexual activity, this is a worrying statistic, as some seniors may unknowingly be living with a sexually transmitted disease or other sexual issue and not know it.
With the increasing prevalence of STDs among seniors, preventative measures and sexual health awareness are more important than ever. At the top of the list of things you can do is to continue to get regularly tested if you are sexually active. While it may seem unnecessary, not staying on top of your sexual history can have dire consequences. One figure from health officials in Connecticut reported that 20 percent of people who have HIV are unaware of their infection. These people could then go on to potentially infect other partners.
Fortunately, for seniors covered by Medicare, the process of getting tested is straightforward. Medicare provides free STD screenings for enrollees, and it's important to take advantage of them. While The New York Times reported that in 2011 and 2012 the number of Medicare-covered seniors who took advantage of free STD tests was about the same as the number of seniors who received colonoscopies to screen for colon cancer, this still only represents about 5 percent of all Medicare recipients - far fewer than the more than 50 percent of those over 65 who are sexually active.