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Seniors are having sex – and some are getting STIs along with it

Older people are also increasingly healthier, and there is a strong association between physical health and remaining sexually active, but being fit doesn’t protect against STIs.

Anna Bizon

Here's a news flash for anyone aged 50 or younger: Your parents are having sex. Your grandparents, if they're still kicking, are most likely doing the horizontal senior shuffle, too.

If you're still in denial, research backs this up. People continue to be sexually active well into the golden years, and for women, way beyond the menopause. In one large study published in 2007, two-thirds of men older than 65 and 40 per cent of women older than 65 reported having sex with a partner in the past year, and the numbers decreased to 40 per cent of men and 17 per cent of women in their 80s. Among all those who were sexually active, more than half of men and women older than 65 reported having sex, on average, two to three times a month!

Yet, there's a storm brewing with all this sex among silver surfers. Specifically, rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, have been increasing in Canada since the 1990s, particularly among older individuals. The same sharp increase in STI rates is found around the world. Some nursing homes and retirement communities have seen dramatic increases in STI rates.

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So why are STI rates increasing?

Awareness campaigns tend to target sexually active youth, not older adults, so seniors may not be getting crucial education about how to stay safe when they're hooking up. Also, given societal stigma about sex in the elderly, they may face barriers in speaking to their own health-care providers about their sex lives or what STI symptoms look like.

Numerous studies have shown that older individuals are less likely to talk to their doctors about sexual health out of discomfort, the gender of the doctor (especially older male patients and young female physicians) and a wish to spare their doctors from embarrassment.

Doctors also report spending less time asking their older patients about sex. They also feel as if they lack sufficient education about sexual matters to be able to adequately counsel their older patients.

With fear of pregnancy a non-issue among octogenarians, individuals might not even be considering that "safe sex" is not just about preventing an unwanted pregnancy but among seniors is about protecting against STIs. They may have come into their sexual primes in a free-loving, pre-AIDS era, long before concerns about HIV/AIDS entered public consciousness and education about barrier methods hit mainstream discussion.

Older people are also increasingly healthier, and there is a strong association between physical health and remaining sexually active. With older folks donning their downward dogs and killing it at the local CrossFit box, combined with readily available medications (for men) and over-the-counter lubes to assist with the mechanics, older people are more likely to feel sexually invincible.

But physical health does not protect against STIs – in fact, our immune systems weaken with age, making it less likely that we can fight off an infection that is looming. So on their way home from the gym, seniors might consider stopping by their local drugstore for a box of condoms before heading to the senior social.

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What you can do:

  • Talk to a partner before engaging in sexual activity about how you can have safer sex. Talking about condoms can be sexy! There are some great online resources for how to make safer-sex talks fun.
  • Get educated. Read Health Canada’s website for information about different STIs, their signs and symptoms, and what to do if you acquire an STI.
  • Get tested. STI testing is free and confidential in Canada. Get tested before a new sex partner if you are unsure of your status, and ask about theirs. Use smartsexresource.com to find a clinic near you.
  • If you are a health-care provider caring for anyone older than you, put your biases aside and talk to your patients about sex, regardless of their age (or gender, culture, socioeconomic status, relationship status or sexual orientation).

Enjoy! Sexual activity is associated with a variety of health benefits and improved mood. So stay safe and put on that raincoat.

Lori Brotto is an associate professor of gynecology at the University of British Columbia and a registered psychologist. You can find her at brottolab.com and follow her on Twitter @DrLoriBrotto.

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