- SAN FRANCISCO - The
newest face of AIDS has wrinkles.
- One of the fastest growing categories of people with
the disease, which long has been considered a plague of the young, are
senior citizens, speakers at a national conference report.
- People age 50 and older represent more than 10 percent
of AIDS cases in the United States, and their numbers are bound to grow
as the epidemic ages and new treatments extend life for people with the
disease, researchers and advocates say.
- More than 70,000 Americans in that age group have been
diagnosed with AIDS and countless others carry the virus that causes the
disease, said Massachusetts expert Donna Gallagher.
- Between 1991 and 1996, the number of AIDS cases among
people 50 and older grew 22 percent, more than twice as fast as among younger
adults, Gallagher said.
- Yet until recently, older patients with AIDS or the HIV
virus that causes it received little attention from the medical community.
- Elders infected by HIV are frequently invisible and largely
ignored,'' said Jane Fowler, founder of a national AIDS advocacy group
focusing on older patients.
- Fowler speaks from personal experience: Nine years ago,
at age 55, the former journalist learned after applying for life insurance
that her blood tested positive for HIV. Fowler, divorced at the time, said
she was exposed to the virus through sexual contact with ''an old friend''
she had been dating.
- ''I never dreamed it would happen to me,'' she said.
''I didn't fit the HIV and AIDS stereotype.''
- After years of shame and humiliation, she said, ''I decided
to put another face to the epidemic: an old, wrinkled face.''
- Now Fowler and her organization, the National Association
on HIV Over Fifty, educate the public about AIDS and older Americans.
- AIDS, she said, is an especially lonely disease for older
people. ''We have a double stigma. We have HIV and we are old.''
- Older people tend to be diagnosed at a later stage of
the disease, in part because of a lack of awareness that older people are
vulnerable and in part because their symptoms mimic some of the symptoms
of aging, said James Campbell of the Boston Department of Public Health's
- As a result, they are often critically ill when they
get their first diagnosis, lowering their chances of successful treatment.
- Many older people hide their illness because they are
afraid of how children and grandchildren will react, experts say. ''It's
especially difficult for an older person to make that disclosure,'' said
- Fowler is doing well on a ''cocktail'' of drugs that
has boosted her immune system and wiped out signs of the virus in her blood.
Many others in her age group die within 90 days of diagnosis, said Campbell.
- Older people are exposed to HIV mainly through sexual
contact. ''Believe me,'' said Campbell, 53, who has AIDS, ''people over
50 are having sex.''
- Gallagher said doctors are partly responsible for not
testing people 50 and over for HIV even after they become ill.
- ''We are afraid to approach older people because we assume
they don't want us to ask questions'' about their sex lives, said Gallagher.
''We need to get over that.''
- Researchers, the experts say, need to include older people
in studies of HIV, and look at how the new AIDS drugs interact with drugs
typically taken by older people for such ailments as arthritis and high
- More support groups are needed for older people with
the disease, and educational materials must be developed targeting that
age group, they said.
- ''This is a different population, a different culture
if you will, and we need to acknowledge that and respond to it,'' said
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