Older couple happy in love, bed

An older couple in bed (© pikselstock - stock.adobe.com)

BARCELONA, Spain — If you think sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are just a problem for young people, think again. Cases of gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, and other STIs are rising rapidly in older adults across the world. Yes, grandma and grandpa are getting busy – and forgetting to wrap it up.

At the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID 2024), experts plan to shine a light on this often-overlooked sexual health issue and call for more openness when it comes to discussing the sex lives and needs of the over-50 crowd.

“People do not become asexual with age. In fact, with preventive medicine and improved lifestyles people are enjoying a healthy life and sex life for longer,” explains Professor Justyna Kowalska, an infectious disease expert from the Medical University of Warsaw, in a media release.

The data shows this is no small matter. In the United States, rates of gonorrhea among 55 to 64-year-olds quintupled from 2015 to 2019, going from around 15 cases per 100,000 people to 57 per 100,000. Similar trends have been seen for syphilis, chlamydia, and other STIs in this age group.

In the United Kingdom, the total number of new STI diagnoses in the over-45 crowd rose 18 percent from 2015 to 2019, up to nearly 38,000 cases. This included a doubling in cases of gonorrhea and syphilis. High rates have also been documented in older populations in China, Korea, Kenya, Botswana, and other countries around the world.

Several factors are thought to be driving the increase in STIs among older adults:

  • Rising divorce rates mean more older people are single and dating later in life.
  • With no pregnancy risk, many forgo condoms after a certain age.
  • Drugs like Viagra have made it easier for older men to remain sexually active.
  • Large numbers of older adults live together in retirement communities.
  • Dating apps have taken off among older user groups.

“Older people often find greater satisfaction in their sex lives due to experience and known expectations. We need more role models like Samantha Jones in the TV show Sex and the City to challenge stereotypes around older sexuality,” Prof. Kowalska explains.

While sex may wane with age, research shows plenty of older adults are still doing it. A Swedish study found 46 percent of people older than 60 reported being sexually active, as did 10 percent of people over 90.

“These findings indicate that sexual risk taking is common among older adults, particularly men,” notes Professor Kowalska.

Case in point: A U.S. study of nearly half a million older couples found recent widowhood increased a man’s risk of getting an STI but not a woman’s. Additionally, the introduction of Viagra appeared to exacerbate that risk for older men.

The dangers of untreated STIs are particularly concerning in older adults, who are more likely to have chronic conditions like heart disease or risk factors for certain cancers triggered by infections. Yet this group often faces barriers to getting tested and treated.

“These data likely underestimate the true extent of the problem as limited access to sexual health services for the over 50s, and trying to avoid the stigma and embarrassment both on the part of older people and healthcare professionals, is leading to this age group not seeking help for STIs,” says Prof. Kowalska.

Part of the problem? Most sex education campaigns completely gloss over older adults.

“Health promotion messages give the impression that condoms and concerns about STIs only apply to young people,” the study author adds.

Professor Kowalska and other experts argue it’s time to change that by:

  • Incorporating sexual health into routine care for older patients.
  • Launching educational campaigns tailored to older demographics.
  • Using peer counselors and community settings to reduce stigma.
  • Making condoms, testing, and treatment more accessible.

“Increasing older adults’ knowledge of the risk of STIs and how to engage in safer sex is crucial to tackling record levels of STIs” urges Prof. Kowalska. “Older people have a right to good sexual health, so let’s normalize conversations around sex and older people, and change the narrative on aging.”

The bottom line is that while sex and intimacy may look different in one’s later years, the need doesn’t go away. Nor does the risk of catching an STI if proper precautions aren’t taken.

“With preventive medicine and improved lifestyles people are enjoying a healthy life and sex life for longer,” says Professor Kowalska.

StudyFinds’ Chris Melore contributed to this report.

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1 Comment

  1. BP says:

    > A U.S. study of nearly half a million older couples found recent widowhood increased a man’s risk of getting an STI but not a woman’s.

    That’s an interesting statistic. It seems to point to that a lot of men are having sexual relations with a small pool of infected women, maybe pros or more specifically pros who don’t know how to or don’t practice safe sex. Women are either not having as much sex, or are more careful to know more about who they hook up with.