Medically Reviewed by Dr Danae Maragouthakis
No one likes to think of their parents messing about in the bedroom, but just because we age, doesn’t mean we lose interest in sex. In fact, a study performed in the UK showed that more than 80% of 50–90-year-olds are sexually active. And there is mounting evidence to suggest that an active sex life is associated with an overall healthier, happier life in older adults. Basically, as many older adults are finding out, sex is good for all ages. However, that proclivity has developed a more disturbing trend as of late we should all be aware of. And that’s the rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in older adults.
In October 2019, Age UK published an article discussing the worrying increase in STIs in older adults. The most recent data for people aged 45–64 published by Public Health England shows that gonorrhoea diagnoses increased by 84% from 2015 to 2019, and in over 65’s the numbers have doubled! Other STIs such as syphilis are also on the rise, with the number of diagnoses increasing by 86% in people over 65 from 2015 to 2019! A 10-year study by Health Protection Scotland shows that although STI diagnoses remain highest in people under the age of 25, the prevalence of genital chlamydia and gonorrhoea is increasing in all age groups.
It’s a worrying trend, because although STIs aren’t great news for anyone, older adults may fare worse due to compromised immune systems or other health conditions.
In this article, we discuss:
“Why are STIs on the rise in older adults,” and “How do we help protect them?”
Let’s get started.
Why Are STIs on the Rise in Older Adults?
Changing social norms and several other factors may be contributing to the rise in sexual activity and STIs in older adults. Here are a few to consider:
New Partners Later in Life
While divorce rates have been shown to have decreased overall from 2018 to 2020, divorces among older adults have actually risen. Whether it’s because of divorce, bereavement, or simply discovering partners later in life, more older adults are having sex with different people later in life.
Lack of Understanding Around Protection
As we age and fertility declines, some older adults may believe that barrier contraception is no longer necessary. Unfortunately, that’s not the case! While older adults may be less likely to have unintended pregnancies, STIs can be transmitted at any age.
Miseducation Around Sex
Sex education has been in England for over a century, but it’s not until recently that schools or online resources (like this one!) have begun teaching sex-ed in more depth. Today, while there is more information about sex and STIs than ever before, there are still entire generations misinformed or uninformed about protection.
They Are Embarrassed
While talking about sex is becoming less taboo with each generation, there are still many people who are ashamed to discuss it at all. Older adults may not feel comfortable discussing sex with partners, or disclosing symptoms to doctors and caretakers. Difficulties with communicating about safe sex with partners may increase the risk of picking up or passing on STIs, and older adults may not feel comfortable speaking to their doctor, instead leaving STIs undiagnosed and untreated.
Advances in Medicine and Technology
Before some recent pharmacological advancements, even if someone had the desire to have sex, they may not have physically been able to. With modern medications (both prescription and over-the-counter), people are able to work around potential obstacles, such as erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness, to facilitate a satisfying sex life. Furthermore, technological developments, like smart phones and dating apps, have increased opportunities for people to connect like never before. So now, just about anyone can develop a robust sexual relationship.
How Can We Help Protect Our Parents and Grandparents?
As children of older adults, it’s important to understand our parents’ and grandparents’ sexual desires and also put ourselves in a position to help them reduce any risks associated with sex. This begins with having empathy for who they are and what they are going through in life. We may be more informed about sex than the older people in our lives, and we can impart that knowledge in an open and non-judgmental way. Simply talking openly about sex can help the older adult in our lives to understand that sex is acceptable for people of all ages, however no sexual activity comes without risk.
How Can People of All Ages Practice Safer Sex?
Safe sex means not only protecting yourself from pregnancy, but also from STIs. One of the best ways we can help everyone, including ourselves, practice safer sex is to understand what that means. Something we learn can be shared with others and the same safe practices we take can be taken by older adults. We must help our parents and grandparents remove any taboos and have open dialogues about their sex lives.
Talk about Safe Sex Practices
Even if you feel certain that your parents or grandparents aren’t sexually active, you might want to have a conversation with them about sex. This is especially relevant if one of your parents or grandparents has started actively dating. Being honest about your own sex life can open up the conversation. Begin the conversation discussing companionship and what that means for them in their lives.
From there, you can develop and grow your conversations to become more focused on the risks involved in sex. You might want to share your own experiences and how you protect yourself against sexual risks. You might be able to signpost them to resources online that will help them to understand how to have sex as safely as possible. You can also encourage them to have regular tests, and to be honest with their healthcare providers about their sexual habits.
How All Adults Protect Themselves
Barrier protection not only helps prevent pregnancy but also helps prevent transmission of common STIs. But, barrier protection isn’t just for intercourse, it’s actually a huge part of protecting you from any sexual activity. It might be worth noting that some older adults may not have any prior experience with condom usage (male or female). Therefore, you may want to share your own knowledge with them.
It might also be unlikely that an older adult has ever taken an STI test or even knows of their availability. Anyone, even older adults, who are sexually active can benefit from regular testing. As we change partners or increase our sexual activity, testing can help us detect any issues early on to help us treat them and prevent further spread.
If the older adult in your life is sexually active, encourage them get regular tests done and help them understand how tests work and what they can do. It might be useful to show them where to get STI tests either in person or online.
While this trend of rising STI numbers in older adults is troublesome, now is a great time to do your part to eliminate the trend and help your loved ones understand their responsibilities and options for staying sexually active. Because one thing is for sure: sex never gets old.
To learn more about STI testing, and to order a kit for home, visit our Home STI Kits page.