When it comes to thinking about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), this is a subject that is usually associated with younger people. However, older adults can also be vulnerable to contracting an STI. In fact, according to recent statistics, the number of older adults who are dealing with an STI is increasing year by year in the UK as seen by the interactive map of England below.
According to Public Health England, the last few years have seen a substantial increase in the diagnoses of STIs in adults aged 45 and over. Perhaps surprisingly, given its population size, London is not the STI capital of England. The capital has seen an 11% growth in the diagnosis of STIs in this age group, but the East Midlands trumps this with a 12% increase in STI diagnoses.
Looking into the data more closely, we can see that in London, although cases of genital warts have slightly gone down, diagnoses of the STIs gonorrhoea (+65%), genital herpes (+9%), chlamydia (+22%) and syphilis (+74%) have all increased.
The graph shows that syphilis is the STI with the fastest growing rate of diagnoses, with a 74% increase between 2012 and 2014. The comeback of syphilis is a surprise, as the STI was virtually wiped out nearly a decade ago. In addition, cases of gonorrhea rose by 65% during the same time. The latter is not so unexpected, as recent reports have shown that certain strains of gonorrhea are becoming more difficult to treat due to their resistance to antibiotics.
The rise in STIs among young people is far greater, and by comparison it may seem that this increase in over 45s with STIs is not serious. However, the statistics show that the growing rate of STIs in many of the English regions should be a concern. Only the West Midlands and North East saw a drop in diagnoses; all other regions saw a significant growth in STI cases.
More safe sex campaigns are being launched to persuade men and women over the age of 50 to practice safe sex, as opposed to the existing campaigns that are mostly targeted towards the nation's youth. When looking at the significant increase in the number of older people developing STIs, it is vital that we consider the root causes of this.
One of the primary causes of the rise in STIs amongst the older generation in the UK is a lack of sex education. Older adults, above the age of 50, grew up in an era where there was a lack of education concerning STIs in schools and in the media. A recent ONS study has shown that younger generations cite television as their main source of information about STIs. Older generations may not have access to this information because they are unlikely to be watching these kinds of television programmes that promote and bring light to safe sex. This is also the case when it comes to public awareness campaigns that are typically targeted towards the younger generation. Also, older adults may have disregarded the highly influential HIV public information films if they were in long-term relationships during the 70s and 80s.
Due to the growing number of mid-life (and older) divorce rates, more men and women are spending this period of their lives re-entering the dating scene and having sex with new partners. A spokeswoman from the FPA (a sexual health charity) has stated that the rise in people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s having sex with new partners brings with it a growing concern that they may believe the safe sex message doesn't apply to them. This is because they have spent much of their lives in a long-term relationship, where they never had to consider safe sex measures. Some older adults may have never used a condom during many years of monogamous, marital sex.
When it comes to heterosexual couples, there is a misconception that safe sex measures are unnecessary after a female has been through the menopause. This belief is prevalent amongst couples where both partners have transitioned from long-term relationships, where no contraception of any kind was used during sex. A study by the ONS has revealed that prevention of pregnancy has been cited as the main reason for using a condom, twice as often as the prevention of infections. This links back to a lack of sex education (as mentioned above), particularly with regards to the use of protection.
Another reason why there is a rise in older adults contracting STIs is because there is a lack of studies and data surrounding the sex lives of older adults. To this day there is still a significant lack of research to analyse with regards to the sex lives of this age group in the UK. It seems that up to this point, the sexual health of older men and women has mostly been ignored in public health data, even though statistics have shown that STI levels are increasing amongst the over 50s year-on-year.
Although there has been a rise in the numbers of older heterosexual men being diagnosed with an STI, gay and bisexual men still appear to be more at risk of developing STIs. A study provided by the Health Protection Agency has shown a 26% rise in the number of gay and bisexual men who have had sex without the use of a condom from 1990 to 2010. This is believed to be partly due to a backlash against the HIV/AIDS epidemic that took place during the 80s and 90s. Whilst HIV is far more manageable these days, gay and bisexual men are still at risk of infections such as HIV if safety isn't considered during sex.
As a result of older adults becoming more comfortable with modern technology, dating websites (e.g. Match.com and eHarmony.co.uk) and dating apps (e.g. Tinder and Grindr) are becoming far more accessible and easy to use for older adults. The rise in the number of people using these sites and apps has contributed to the increase in the number of older individuals with STIs, as the older generation is becoming far more adventurous with their sex lives. These sites and apps fuel the curiosity towards beginning new sexual relationships later in life. This more adventurous nature is referred to in the media as the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' effect.
Contracting STIs (such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea) can be avoided by following some simple preventative methods. This can include using condoms during sexual intercourse with new partners and avoiding sharing sex toys. To learn more about the various ways to successfully prevent and treat STIs, please refer to our STI condition page.