By Barb DePree, MD | Grandparent Health | Single and widowed grandparents beware: Don’t be among the high number of people over 50 with sexually transmitted infections. Practice these smart tips for safe sex. |
I heard it again just last week: “Since I can’t get pregnant, when I got divorced I thought I could be a little risqué.”
That’s one factor I see leading to high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among people over 50. Another is the number of older adults who are back in the dating scene, having skipped learning about STIs in the 1980s and ’90s, when they were in monogamous relationships.
Older women are more susceptible to infections than their younger selves. Less estrogen means thin, dry vaginal walls, which can have small tears and microscopic vaginal bleeding during sex, offering a warm welcome to invading nasties. Plus, our pH balance tends to be less acidic after menopause, a friendly environment for bacterial infections.
STIs affect every age group, but rates of infection are growing fastest among older people. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 15 percent of new HIV infections are in those over 50. Research at Indiana University in 2010 indicated that condom use was lowest in that age group. Maybe there’s some connection there?
What’s a modern mature adult to do?
- Get an annual pelvic exam and a Pap test every three years.
- If you have a new sexual partner, insist on using a condom (properly — and don’t be shy if it’s new to you) until you are both absolutely certain nothing is getting passed between you.
- Both you and each new partner should be tested for STIs. Many infections have no symptoms; someone can have, and spread, an infection without knowing it. Every type of STI is easier to treat when found early.
- One infection reduces your ability to fight off others. This is especially true with HIV, so it’s important for both partners to know their health status.
I’ve learned through my medical practice that anyone can have an STI. There’s no stigma and no shame. As a physician, I encourage people to stay sexually engaged and healthy, but not if it means unthinkingly sharing an STI with your partner or endangering your own health.
Barb DePree, MD, gynecologist and menopause care specialist, is nationally recognized for providing expert advice and information for midlife women and their sexual health via her website MiddlesexMD. She is NAMS Practitioner of the Year 2013 and was named third on Sharecare’s list of the web’s 10 most influential menopause experts.