Coming this fall to your TV screen: “The Golden Bachelor.” That’s right, reality television fans, seniors are finally getting their shot at this (somewhat unscripted) love connection. The suspenseful rose ceremonies and extravagant date nights are likely. But will there be an overnight in the fantasy suite?
If this is, in fact, reality, then there should be. Physical intimacy is important — sex even has health benefits. Yes, even for those in their twilight years. Shining a light on sex after 60 may be just what the doctor ordered. But seniors also need to know how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
STD Rates Rise Along with Sex After 60
Sexual health may not be a topic older adults are keen on discussing — even with their care providers. “Unfortunately, this reluctance to talk about sex is putting newly single seniors at risk for sexually transmitted infections,” says Laurie Archbald-Pannone, MD, a geriatrician with UVA Health. As a geriatrician, she specializes in primary care for older adults.
One analysis showed that in adults over age 60, diagnosis rates for STDs (also known as sexually transmitted infections or STIs) increased 23% in 3 years.
That’s more than double the increase seen in the rest of the population, which saw a rise of just 11% in diagnoses of STDs. The main STDS are gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes simplex.
Why the STD Boom Among Boomers?
The rise is likely due to “a lack of awareness among this age group about STI prevalence and prevention,” says Archbald-Pannone.
“A common scenario is when someone older in life suddenly rejoins the dating scene after a decades-long monogamous relationship. This person may not have a history of STI education, so may not be aware of appropriate prevention or STI signs and symptoms,” she says.
With increased availability of medications for menopausal symptoms and erectile dysfunction, sex after 60 is more common. But older adults are also more susceptible to infections due to age-related changes in immune function. For women, postmenopausal vaginal dryness can increase the risk for tears in the vaginal wall, which can accelerate the spread of infection.
Let's Talk About Sex After 60
Unfortunately, says Archbald-Pannone, many clinicians are missing an opportunity to educate this population about STD prevention, including the use of condoms and the importance of screening.
“In terms of sexual health, we as providers readily talk about STI prevention with younger patients,” she says. “Among older adults, however, studies show clinicians are not having the same conversations. Often it’s because the provider is uncomfortable bringing up the topic. At any age, it’s difficult to discuss sensitive topics. But, as providers, we can have a big impact by talking to our patients about sexual practices, sexual health and STI prevention.
“We have to make sure that, as clinicians, we’re well educated on these topics so we can be a resource for our patients,” adds Archbald-Pannone. “We also have to create a judgment-free, open environment so patients feel comfortable having those conversations.”
4 Tips for STD Prevention
For anyone entering a sexual relationship, Archbald-Pannone has the following advice:
Talk to Your Partner
Be aware of your partner’s sexual history and STD risk factors before being intimate.
Condoms or other barrier methods used during intercourse prevent infections.
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Get Screened & Encourage Partners to Do the Same
If you are sexually active — either with a new partner, with several partners, or if your partner has recently had sex with others — you should have an annual STD screening. There is no age cutoff for screening.
Know STD Symptoms
If you're having sex after 60 or any age, educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes simplex. Some of the most common include:
- Bumps, sores, or lesions around the genitals
- Discharge from the penis or vagina
- Painful urination
If you experience any unusual symptoms after engaging in sexual intercourse, don’t delay treatment. The condition can get worse.
Be sure to discuss your diagnosis with your partner so that they can get treatment as well.
Talk to Your Doctor
Your sexual health is an important part of your overall well-being. So don’t hesitate to discuss your questions and concerns with a clinician. Make your doctor aware of changes in your sexual practices to ensure you’re making safe choices when having sex after 60 or any age.