You might think of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS) to be problems that only young people need to worry about. However, the truth is that anyone of any age can be infected with HIV, and as people with the infection grow older, people of all ages can find themselves needing to manage the condition. Nearly half of people living with HIV in the United States are age 50 and older. Many of them were diagnosed with HIV in their younger years. However, thousands of older people get HIV every year.
What Is HIV?
HIV is a virus that damages and weakens the body’s immune system — the system your body uses to fight off infection and disease. Having HIV puts a person in danger of experiencing other life-threatening infections and certain cancers.
What Is AIDS?
When the body cannot fight off infections and other diseases, HIV can lead to a serious illness called AIDS. When someone has AIDS, they are more likely to get infections. They are also more vulnerable to unusual forms of cancers and other serious diseases.
However, with early and uninterrupted treatment, it is possible that a person with HIV will never develop AIDS.
How Is HIV Transmitted?
People usually acquire HIV from unprotected sex with someone who has HIV, through contact with HIV-infected blood, or by sharing needles with a person who has HIV. The following are factors that put you at greater risk for HIV infection:
- Sex without a latex or polyurethane condom. The virus passes from the person living with HIV to his or her partner via blood, semen, or vaginal fluid. During sex, HIV can get into your body through body fluids and any opening, such as a tear or cut in the lining of the vagina, vulva, penis, rectum, or—rarely—the mouth. Latex condoms can help prevent HIV transmission between sexual partners. (Natural condoms, like condoms made from lambskin, are not as effective as latex and polyurethane condoms at protecting against HIV/AIDS.)
- Sharing needles with a person infected with HIV. People who inject illegal drugs are not the only people who might share needles. For example, people with diabetes who inject insulin or draw blood to test glucose levels might also share needles. Talk to your partner(s) about their drug and sexual history, and always use a new, sterile needle for any injections.
- Having had a blood transfusion or operation in a developing country at any time.
- Having had a blood transfusion in the United States between 1978 and 1985.
- Being diagnosed with or treated for hepatitis or tuberculosis (TB) at any time.
If any of these risk factors are true for you or a loved one, getting tested for HIV is a wise and prudent next step.
Getting Tested for HIV/AIDS
According to the National Institute on Aging, everyone from age 13 to age 64 should be tested at least once for HIV. If you are over 64 and are at risk for HIV, talk with your doctor. Your doctor can help determine how often you should be tested and help find ways to reduce your risk. Keep in mind that it can take as long as 3 to 6 months after initial exposure for the signs of the virus to show up in your blood, and years before you show any symptoms.
A small blood sample, mouth swab, or urine sample is used to test for HIV. The test can be at a doctor’s office, hospital, community health center, or other health clinic. Some places have mobile testing vans. AIDS services organizations also may provide testing. At-home testing kits are also available. If you choose to take a test at home, make sure to use a test that has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If the test has not been approved by the FDA, it may not give accurate results. Home tests are sold at drugstores and online. Follow up with your doctor to confirm the results of at-home tests and, if necessary, begin treatment.
Being Treated for HIV/AIDS
There are drugs that, when taken consistently, can help suppress the amount of HIV in your blood to undetectable levels, improving your health overall and making it harder to pass HIV on to your sexual partners. To get the best results, it is important to start treatment as soon as possible.
For people who have HIV, it is important to start treatment as soon as possible after diagnosis. Treatment can help reduce the level of HIV in the blood to undetectable levels. When treatment makes HIV undetectable, the possibility of spreading the virus to a sexual partner becomes very low. This is known as treatment as prevention (TasP).
How HIV/AIDS Can Be Different for Older Adults
A growing number of older adults are living with HIV/AIDS. One reason is because improved treatments are helping people with the infection live longer.
Older people are less likely than younger people to get tested, so they may not know they have HIV. Signs of HIV/AIDS can be mistaken for the aches and pains of normal aging. Older adults might be coping with other diseases, and the aches and pains of these diseases and normal aging can mask the signs of HIV/AIDS.
Some older people might feel ashamed or afraid of being tested. Some doctors do not always think to test older people for HIV. By the time the older person is diagnosed, the virus might be in the late stages and more likely to progress to AIDS.
Even when the disease is well controlled, people with HIV may develop aging-related conditions at a younger age. HIV and its treatment can also affect other parts of the body, such as the brain and the heart. For example, people living with HIV are significantly more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than people without HIV. Older people living with HIV also have an increased risk of dementia. Talk with your doctor if you are concerned about how living with HIV could affect you as you grow older.