The possibility of becoming infected with an incurable disease never occurred to Jane Fowler. After her divorce, Jane had a sexual relationship with an old family friend. A blood test for an insurance policy alerted the 55-year-old that she was infected with
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The HIV virus weakens the body's immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to infections, cancers, and other diseases. People infected with HIV may not appear ill or suffer from any serious symptoms for years. They may also appear perfectly healthy. But people with HIV can pass the virus to others through sexual activity or sharing of needles. Casual contact, however, does not increase risk. The virus lives in bodily fluids, not on physical objects or body surfaces, so activities such as sharing silverware, hugging, using a public toilet, or shaking hands do not increase your risk of contracting the virus.
In general, older adults remain less knowledgeable than teens and young adults about the virus, its risks, and the ways to prevent it. Jane is doing her part to educate older adults by taking to the road and sharing her story. She also founded an organization called
HIV Wisdom for Older Women.
Many successful prevention programs have been administered to people in retirement communities, at health fairs, as well as other places older adults gather. The programs use age-appropriate materials and adapt public outreach messages to address the needs of an older audience. They also recruit older adults to pass along the message and to create a dialogue and atmosphere where people are comfortable asking questions.
There are several ways to reduce risk for contracting HIV, including:
- Keep condoms handy and always use a latex condom during sex with someone whose disease status you do not know. Think of it as having sex with everyone your partner has ever had sex with.
- Learn how to talk about sex and to negotiate protective barriers with potential partners.
- Do not share needles.
"If anybody has put him or herself at risk, get tested," Jane says. "I feel like I was blessed that I 'flunked' the insurance company blood test when I did and found out I was infected. Had I not, I might be dead of AIDS today." Early treatment improves the odds of living with the disease.
Routine blood tests do not include an HIV test, and some doctors might not consider ordering an HIV test when older patients come in for a visit. Do not wait for your doctor to introduce the subject. If you think you may be at risk, ask for an HIV test and discuss the risks with your doctor.
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Last reviewed February 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
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