By Dr. David Lipschitz

October 8, 2012 5 min read

There is good news and there is bad news about sexually transmitted diseases. In the case of HIV and AIDS, incredible breakthroughs in therapy have led to the hope of a cure.

Antiviral therapy can keep the disease at bay for decades and allow those infected with the virus to lead nearly normal lives. In developing countries, aggressive public health campaigns aimed at education, minimizing spread of the disease and improving access to therapy are leading to significant progress.

With better treatment has come a greater sense of complacency about the dangers of STDs, particularly among teenagers and young adults. But the groups that tend to take these illnesses the least seriously are middle-aged and older people.

In the past decade, the greatest percentage increase in HIV and other STDs -- including gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes and syphilis -- has occurred in the elderly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between 2000 and 2010, the incidence doubled for HIV and more than tripled for the other STDs. In 2005, 15 percent of new cases of HIV occurred in people older than 50, and that number continues to increase.

Statistics from a recent study published in Student British Medical Journal indicate that approximately 80 percent of those between the ages of 50 and 90 remain sexually active.

This has been fueled in part, according to epidemiologists, by the development of drugs to treat erectile dysfunction and the availability of online dating. In the past few years, the greatest increase in the use of online dating services occurred in those who are older than 50. And becoming widowed or divorced is leading to exposure to more sexual partners and a greater risk of an STD.

"This could not possibly happen to me" is a common response when an older person becomes infected. No question the baby boomers, who ushered in the sexual revolution, remain quite naive when it comes to the risks of STDs. They are less likely to practice safe sex than their younger counterparts, some believing that because pregnancy is no longer possible, contraception is not needed. At every age, the risk of acquiring an STD is greater in women, and because of age-related changes, the risk is particularly great in women who are past menopause.

In many retirement communities in Florida and Arizona, there are six single women for every single man. STDs have been widely spread by men who have multiple sexual partners and do not practice safe sex. Some have referred to older men who date frequently -- often because they are able to drive at night and pay for dinner -- as condo cowboys.

The message from this information is clear. No matter your age, beware of STDs and heed the advice that applies to everyone. First and foremost, be serious. The best way to prevent an STD is not to have sex. Abstinence is the only sure way of prevention. If you are having sex, only do so with one partner who does not have an STD and who only has sex with you.

If you are beginning a new relationship, think about getting tested first. And always use a barrier method -- such as a latex condom, the best protection against an STD. But remember that even condoms are not 100 percent effective. And if you do have multiple sexual partners or are in a new relationship, have regular physical examinations. Inquire whether you should be tested for an STD if you think you have been exposed.

Sadly, many of these infections remain asymptomatic, increasing the risk of being spread if not appropriately treated. And while pelvic and pap smears generally are deferred after the age of 70, these should be done in those in a new relationship.

Continued intimacy, love and companionship improve the quality and quantity of our lives, particularly as we reach our so-called golden years. Finding a new partner to share our life is a special gift. But these new relationships have to be taken very seriously and carefully. Remember that being single and sexually active today is far more dangerous than in the liberated years of the 1960s.

David Lipschitz's weekly column, "Lifelong Health," can be found at

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