Sexual health programs for older people ‘urgently needed’

Published 20 April 2012

Public health researchers at the University of New England are recommending the introduction of supportive sexual health education and intervention programs to address the current rise in the incidence of sexually transmissible infections among older people.

Recently published Australian figures reveal that the number of chlamydia cases in people over the age of 50 doubled between 2004 and 2010, and figures from abroad show similar trends in the incidence of a range of sexually transmissible infections – including HIV – in older people. In the UK, for example, the incidence of sexually transmissible infections in older people doubled between 1996 and 2003.

Given the rapidly increasing proportion of older people in the populations of many countries, the researchers say, such figures have serious implications for public health at a global level.

Professor Victor Minichiello, who leads the research at UNE, said that societies needed to overcome a prevailing – although unacknowledged – “sexual ageism”. This would involve recognition of the sexual life of older people by society in general and health professionals in particular, he said, and the introduction of targeted sexual health education programs for older people. “The sexual health message you’d deliver to a 60-year-old is different to the message for an adolescent,” Professor Minichiello said.

“Social and familial attitudes, and fear of professional judgement, often prevent older people from seeking sexual health support,” he said. “Thus the silenced remain silent, and the rates continue to rise.”

Professor Minichiello (pictured here) was invited to join other international experts in a World HIV/AIDS Online Symposium last week, during which he discussed figures that reveal high levels of sexual activity among older people. Examples include a Swedish survey reporting that 68 per cent of men and 56 per cent of women aged 70 were sexually active, and a survey from the United States reporting that 20 per cent of people aged 80 to 94 were still sexually active.

Professor Minichiello said that this level of sexual activity in older people, together with a general lack of awareness within this age group about sexually transmissible infections, was generating an increasing prevalence of these infections in older populations around the world. He referred to evidence of this phenomenon in the United States, the UK, Australia, Canada, Korea, Singapore, China, Kenya, Botswana and Uganda. This evidence is to be presented and discussed in a paper on the global epidemiology of sexually transmissible infections to be published in the July issue of the European journal Perspectives in Public Health.

Professor Minichiello’s own research has revealed low levels of condom use among older people in Australia, and he quoted similar findings from China and Korea.

Taken together, this evidence represented an important discovery that called for urgent action, Professor Minichiello said – the first step being the development of awareness in older people themselves, health practitioners, and policy makers.

“If we do nothing, we’ll see a significant increase in the incidence of these infections in older people, at enormous cost to the health care system,” he said.