Baby Boomers, Sex and STDs
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Baby Boomers, Sex and STDs

Being over 50 doesn’t necessarily mean being over the hill sexually – and that’s a good thing, considering the many health benefits of sex. Sex can help relieve stress, boosts immunity, releases the brain’s feel-good chemicals called endorphins, increases self-esteem and, let’s face it, can just plain feel good. In men, it also improves prostate health.

Clearly middle-aged people are getting busy in the bedroom. For those in their sixties, 71% of men and over 50% of women report being sexually active. And just how often are they heating up the sheets? Over half of adults in this age group say they engage in some form of sexual activity at least once a month.

While this trend has its health benefits, there is a downside – it may have contributed to the significant rise in the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in baby boomers. Part of the problem is that sexual health is rarely addressed among older adults with healthcare professionals. Emphasis is more likely to be placed on sexual dysfunction and negative stereotypes depicting “impotent” baby boomers. More sex, more risk and less screening equals a recipe for a boom in STDs.

Related: How Often Should I Be Screened for STDs?

How’d That Happen?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur each year in the U.S., half among young people. Not all STDs are reported to the CDC, but of those that are, statistics showed there were 5,601 diagnoses of chlamydia in adults aged 45-54 and 1,110 in adults aged 55-64 in 2000. By 2010 that had risen to 16,106 and 3,523 -- a three-fold jump in 10 years. Why the increase? There are several factors in play:

1. No pregnancy worries. Women who have reached menopause don't have the added incentive of using condoms to prevent pregnancy, and many older women are simply not part of the condom generation. During the 1980’s when safe sex and STD prevention education was everywhere, many baby boomers were married and missed out on that education.

Skipping condom protection puts post-menopausal women at additional risk for contracting an STD. Physiological changes to the vagina result in thinning of the mucosa and decreased lubrication. These changes leave women more vulnerable to minor tears and microabrasions that facilitate the entry of sexually transmitted viruses and bacteria.

Related: How Menopause Can Affect Your Sex Life

2. ED medications. Another theory places some of the blame on erectile dysfunction (ED) medications. These meds, such as Cialis, Viagra and Levitra, have allowed men to stay sexually active, and therefore at risk, beyond previous limits.

Related: What You Should Know About ED          

3. Divorce. America has high mid-life divorce rates, so many boomers have become sexually active outside the confines of a (presumably) monogamous marriage. Online dating sites make it easier than ever for mid-lifers to meet potential new partners. But whether they meet searching online profiles or picking produce at the farmer’s market, bringing up sexual history isn’t usually a popular – or comfortable – topic of conversation. Even if it does come up, there’s no guarantee of honesty about whether a potential partner has an STD.

4. Condom Cop-out. Finally – and this last point is controversial -- men of this generation typically call the shots when it comes to using protection. It’s no secret that most men don’t prefer wearing condoms, leaving both partners at risk.                                                                                              

Who’s Getting What?
A common STD in middle-aged men is urethritis. Common offenders that cause urethritis are gonorrhea, chlamydia, ureaplasmaand mycoplasma. Symptoms include penile discharge and burning with urination, which should send a man of any age running to his doctor’s office. The good news is that testing is much easier now. Urine tests for chlamydia and gonorrhea have replaced the dreaded urethral swab.  

Related: What are the Symptoms of Gonorrhea?

In female baby boomers, the most common sexually transmitted vaginal and cervical infections are trichomoniasis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. If you experience symptoms, have a partner you suspect has been unfaithful or just want reassurance that you’re STD-free, your primary care doctor or ob/gyn can easily test you. A vaginal culture is done for trichomoniasis (it will also be seen on a pap smear), while gonorrhea and chlamydia are screened during a pap.

In the United States, herpes simplex virus type 2 is the most common sexually transmitted genital ulcer disease in both men and women over the age of 50. Transmitted through oral, anal or vaginal intercourse, genital herpes typically leads to major emotional distress because unlike bacterial infections, this viral infection stays with you for life. Some boomers made it through their young lives only to be nailed with it now. There are antiviral medications to shorten or prevent outbreaks of genital sores and blisters, but there is no cure.                                

HIV Risk: It’s Real
Listen up, baby boomers. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all adults age 15 to 65 years be tested for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The CDC has shown that the number of new HIV infections is growing faster in individuals over 50 than in people 40 years and under.

It’s essential that baby boomers get educated about the risks of STDs. Age does not protect you from sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms do. Wrap it up.