Seniors & HIV Awareness

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Older women, revered for their bedroom prowess in movies like "The Graduate" and "American Pie," may not be any wiser when it comes to knowing about HIV transmission, according to a survey in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The researchers conducting face-to-face interviews with more than 500 women aged 50 and older from June 2001 and July 2002. Women were asked nine questions to assess their knowledge of HIV transmission and prevention. Topics included heterosexual intercourse, kissing, oral sex, abstinence, condoms, spermicides, diaphragms, vasectomies, and monogamy.

Of the nine questions about HIV transmission, 65 percent answered four or fewer questions correctly. None answered them all correctly.

For example:

  • 84 percent correctly said that unprotected heterosexual sex was a moderate- to high-risk activity for HIV transmission.
  • 63 percent incorrectly identified kissing as a mode of HIV transmission.
  • 76 percent overestimated oral sex as a mode of HIV transmission.
  • Only 13 percent identified condoms as effective in preventing HIV transmission, while 18 percent said they were not effective at all.
  • 44 percent of the women incorrectly said abstinence was "not at all" or "somewhat effective" in preventing HIV transmission.

    According to Planned Parenthood Federation of America, condoms can protect both partners from STDs including HIV during vaginal and anal sex.

    HIV and the Elderly: A Catch-22?

    "The misconception is that older people don't have sex anymore and that they are really not engaging in risky activity," says lead researcher Lisa Bernstein, MD, an assistant professor of medicine on the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, in a news release. "As part of older women being at risk for HIV, much of it is based on how much they know about HIV. Unfortunately, this population has not been targeted with HIV prevention messages because they aren't considered to be at risk — yet their risk is probably rooted in their low knowledge."

    When asked to name how they got HIV transmission information, 85 percent of the women said it came from television, 54 percent said it came from their friends, and 51 percent cited newspapers. But even more alarming is that only 38 percent said they had ever received information on HIV transmission from a health-care professional.

    As many as 10 percent of AIDS cases in adult women occur in those aged 50 and older. Women in this age group are mainly infected as a result of sexual intercourse.

    "The important thing to realize is that these patients are still sexually active. The problem is that they don't realize that they're at risk for this life-threatening disease," says Bernstein.

    SOURCES: Henderson, S. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, September 2004; vol 52: pp 1549-1553. News release, American Geriatrics Society.

    By Denise Mann, MS
    Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD
    © 2004, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved