AGEING WITH HIV
Today, thanks to improvements in the effectiveness of HIV medication, people living with HIV who are diagnosed early in their infection, and who get and stay on medication can keep the virus suppressed and live as long as their peers. For this reason, a growing number of people living with HIV in the United Kingdom are aged 50 and older. Many of them have been living with HIV for years; others are recently infected or diagnosed.
So the good news is that people with HIV are living longer, healthier lives if they are on treatment and achieve and maintain a suppressed viral load. Now that effective treatment for HIV is available, it is considered to be a long-term condition and many people are able to live long and healthy lives with HIV.
To give yourself the best chance of a healthy older age, it’s a good idea to take action to improve your general health – stop smoking, maintain a healthy weight, eat healthily and take regular exercise.
However, with this longer life expectancy Individuals living with long-term HIV infection still experience those as their peers: other long-term conditions, the use of multiple medications, changes in physical and cognitive abilities, and increased vulnerability to stress.
In the UK we are seeing older people more likely than younger people to be diagnosed with HIV later, meaning they get a late start to treatment and possibly have had more damage to their immune system. This can lead to poorer health outcomes. Late diagnoses can occur because health care providers may not assume HIV infection, but go through other tests and screenings. Older people may also mistake HIV symptoms for those of normal aging and don’t consider HIV as a cause.
While effective HIV treatments have made a massive difference we see that people living long term are more affected by cardiovascular disease, lung disease, certain cancers and liver disease (including hepatitis B and hepatitis C), among others.
In addition, HIV appears to increase the risk for several age-associated diseases as well as to cause chronic inflammation throughout the body. Chronic inflammation is associated with a number of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, lymphoma, and type 2 diabetes. There is also the risk of long-term effects of smoking, (which is more common among people who have HIV) or being overweight.
However, many of the drugs used to treat HIV have not been around for very long. Whereas short-term side-effects are well researched and documented, longer-term side-effects are less well understood. Some HIV drugs affect the kidneys, liver, bones and heart in subtle ways. As part of your routine health monitoring, your healthcare professional will keep an eye on how well your body is working, so any problems can be identified and treated early. It is crucial therefore that people attend medical appointments and have regular health checks and have good medical and GP care and support.
Your healthcare professional will monitor your blood and urine tests for signs of any problems. If you think you are experiencing any new symptoms, illnesses or side-effects, it’s important to let your healthcare professional know so these can be investigated.
As we age and experience other health issues, it’s more likely that we will be taking more medication. You may see one healthcare professional for HIV and another healthcare professional for something else. In some cases, drugs for another condition can interact with your HIV drugs, making one or both of them less effective, so it’s important that your healthcare professionals know about the drugs you are taking.
The Importance of Support Services
Living with HIV presents certain challenges, no matter what your age. But older people with HIV may face different issues than their younger counterparts, including greater social isolation and loneliness. Stigma is also a particular concern among older people with HIV. Stigma negatively affects people’s quality of life, self-image, and behaviors, and may prevent them disclosing their HIV status or seeking HIV care.
Therefore, it is important for older people with HIV to get linked to HIV care and have access to mental health and other support services such as Staffordshire Buddies to help them stay healthy and remain engaged in HIV care.
How you feel about ageing and the issues that interest or concern you will depend on your own circumstances. Perhaps you are already enjoying retirement with friends and family around you, or you may be concerned about your housing, finances or independence as you age. It’s natural to think about these things, and it can be helpful to start planning for your older age with the support of friends and family. At Staffordshire Buddies we can also help to support and work with you.