Rising numbers of older people are getting sexually transmitted infections due to poor awareness and misconceptions about the risks, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that people living healthier lives and rising rates of divorce could be contributing to an increase in diseases such as HIV, herpes and chlamydia in heterosexual adults aged over 45 across the UK.
In-depth interviews with a small group of heterosexual people from Glasgow between 45 and 65 revealed that some saw pregnancy as the only unwanted complication from sex.
Others believed love and trust could act as a barrier because they thought STIs only came from casual sex.
The stigma attached also meant many were too embarrassed to seek medical help, according to the study published in the Reproductive Health Matters journal.
While people under 25 and gay men are still most at risk from STIs, medics need to target older people to prevent the problem from growing, said Dr Jenny Dalrymple, of Glasgow Caledonian University.
Dalrymple, a clinical academic research fellow, said: “There are various factors which might make this likely to continue, such as increasing life expectancy, better health expectancy in later life and higher rates of divorce.
“The dramatic changes going on suggest people are changing partners later in life and are exhibiting risky behaviour in later years.
“I wanted to get a sense of how older adults understand these risks.”
The research found that living through the 1980s Aids epidemic had also shaped attitudes towards sexual health, while some adults reported only learning about STIs from their children.
Dalrymple, who is also a specialist sexual health nurse in Glasgow, said: “What they were taught at school was all about pregnancy and any STIs were stigmatised.
“Women were also much more restricted in experience and sexual behaviour. Getting an STI carried a sense of shame and ‘other people’ got them.
“Many were in long-term relationships and did not feel like the issue applied to them.”
She called for better awareness programmes for older adults and said these would need to consider poor awareness and stigmas around sexuality, particularly among older women.
Campaigners welcomed the research and called for sexual health information to be offered as part of free NHS checks.
Natika H Halil, chief executive of sexual health charity FPA, said: “We know that in this age group people often don’t think safer sex messages apply to them, particularly once the menopause has been and gone and pregnancy is no longer a worry.
“We can’t assume that just because people are older they have the confidence, knowledge and the skills they need to navigate relationships and take care of their sexual health.
“We’d love to see more targeted campaigns to help this age group make informed decisions about their health, and understand that getting tested for STIs is a responsible health decision, not a source of shame or embarrassment.
“We encourage health professionals and pharmacists to offer sexual health and wellbeing information to older people.”