‘Age is not a condom’: Why STIs are on the rise for people over age 55

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. Although infections like chlamydia, for example, are highest among adolescents and young adults, a 2020 study shows that STIs in general among older adults have “dramatically increased in recent years, especially among those who are widowed and divorced.”

The study authors point out that STIs have “more than doubled in the past 10 years among U.S. adults age 65 years and older.”

There’s no such thing as being too old to get a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Despite that, there’s “a misconception” that older adults are “immune to STIs simply because they're over the age of 55 and that's not going to happen to them anymore,” Dr. Ina Park, associate professor of family community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of Strange Bedfellows: Adventures in the Science, History, and Surprising Secrets of STIs, tells Yahoo Life.

Park wants older adults to know that you can get an STI “regardless of your age.” Quoting HIV research scientist Dr. Stephen Karpiak, Park says, “Age is not a condom.”

In fact, according to Park, “You might be surprised to know that STIs are going up for everybody, including for people over the age of 55.”

Video transcript

INA PARK: I'm here to bust a myth or a misconception that some of my older patients have that they are immune to STIs simply because they're over the age of 55, and that's not going to happen to them anymore. Quoting one of my favorite people, Stephen Karpiak, "Age is not a condom." I think we, as a society, really stop discussing sexuality or thinking about sexuality past a certain age because, I think, we make assumptions that older people are not sexual beings.

And I'm here to tell you that's absolutely not the case, and you are not immune from STIs regardless of your age. The CDC tracks chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, and you might be surprised to know that STIs are going up for everybody, including for people over the age of 55. I think one of the biggest adjustments that some people have to make is this idea of dating after they've been in a stable partnership for 10, 20, even 30 years.

If they're out there again and dating after a divorce, not having had to think about sexual health, just because you happen to be above a certain age, you are not immune to getting an STI if you are still sexually active. We should talk about herpes because that is really different than the bacterial infections because herpes is an infection that stays with you forever once you become infected. The percentage of people that actually have herpes goes up with age, and by the time we get over the age of 50, about 1 in 5 of us has herpes type 2, and almost 60% of folks over 50 actually have a herpes type 1.

We also need to talk about HPV, human papillomavirus, because that is the most common sexually transmitted infection. And by the time you get into your 50s and 60s, these STIs are actually more common in men than in women. One thing that's going on is that when we get into the older age groups, the retirement community, for example, the ratio of men to women is really skewed, right? So there's less men because men tend to die younger, and then there's more women around.

So the ones that are around are getting lots of action, so they're having multiple partners. And if you have multiple concurrent partners, that is the easiest way to spread an STI in a community. For people who are getting back out there after not having been on the dating scene for years and years, I think we need to acknowledge that we're all coming with completely different levels of knowledge, and some of us got absolutely zero education, and some of us only were taught about unplanned pregnancy, and then some of us only got fear-based education so that we only saw the worst case scenario pictures of STIs.

Shame and stigma are such a huge factor in STIs and why people avoid going in to get tested. Most STIs can be cured. Those that can't be cured can certainly be controlled. So don't have that illusion that your age is going to protect you. Go out and use protection yourself, and get tested. We need to think about sexual health as an overall part of health and not think about it as something that only younger people do.