Health & Medicine

Baby boomers and older lovers aren't immune to sexually transmitted diseases

Baby boomers have used condoms mostly to prevent pregnancy, not to prevent nasty diseases.
Baby boomers have used condoms mostly to prevent pregnancy, not to prevent nasty diseases. MCT

People who came of age in the 1960s and '70s did so in an era of free love. Even the music blasting from the speakers inside those sweet street machines told them it was OK to have sex anytime, anywhere and with anyone.

Stephen Stills' first solo hit, in 1970, might have put it best: "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with."

Now, it appears that some of those "kids" weren't taught much about sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs. And if the health teacher did talk about them, apparently many were snoozing.

The good news: Baby boomers still love to make love. The bad news: they're getting STDs at alarming rates.

As adolescents, boomers used condoms mostly to prevent pregnancy, not to prevent nasty diseases like gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. Some boomers now think that if they didn't get sick when they were younger, they need not be concerned today.

And very few, if any, baby boomers were educated about HIV, said Chris Partis, HIV prevention coordinator at Summit County, Ohio, Public Health. "By the time HIV came along, most boomers were probably in a marriage or in a relationship," Partis said.

According to Summit County's data, on average, 13 percent of the people who tested positive for HIV over the past five years in the region were older than 50. That ranged from 6 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in 2010. Those statistics rival those for the 20- to 24-year-old age group.

Herpes, gonorrhea and chlamydia are far more common. Doctors must report cases of STDs, but thousands of people don't visit physicians, so the statistics probably don't reflect the actual numbers. Still, the Ohio Department of Health reported that statewide diagnosed cases of chlamydia, for instance, went from 41,583 in 2006 to 51,194 five years later.

In the baby boomer age group (47 to 65) and older, STDs can range from an annoyance to a real health concern.

"Syphilis can kill if left undiagnosed," Partis said. "And untreated gonorrhea in women can affect their ovaries, fallopian tubes and cause ongoing problems."

"People old enough to know better getting STDs? Sounds like people smoking and getting cancer," said Tallmadge's Barbara De-Leone, a member of the Beacon Journal's baby-boomer readers group. "Perhaps my age group can't give up on the '70s notion that if it feels good, do it, no matter the consequences."

The death of a partner is one thing that can push men and women back into the dating scene. Another is divorce.

The National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University found that the divorce rate for boomers and older couples has more than doubled over the past three decades. And that's expected to rise.

More than one in four people who divorce today are older than 50. And that means a lot more people are seeking companionship, but sometimes they know little to nothing of a prospective lover's past.

"We have communities now for those over 50 or 55. And many of the residents are without a spouse," Partis said. "If you throw things like Viagra in the mix, ... what's to stop people from being sexually active?

"We look at the positive things about it. But yet the thought that diseases are out there, even ones as serious as HIV, never enters the vast majority of people's minds."

Enjoying sex as a person ages certainly isn't new, but Partis thinks it's a cultural thing with baby boomers.

"We've always been sexually active. We grew up with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And as long as the flesh is willing. ..."

Boomer group member Audrey Humphrey of Atwater, Ohio, noted that the motto for her generation was "Make love, not war."

"AIDS just appeared one day, and life changed pretty fast," she said. "I really think that was when free sex slowed down. ... Most people started thinking about the consequences of not being careful.

"A lot of baby boomers lost good friends in the early years of the disease. And of course there were the 'it will never happen to me' boomers. We will miss them."

So what should be done?

Wise baby boomers could help spread the word that their generation is not immune to STDs.

"As with everything, education is key," said boomer group member Kathy Sidaway of Bath, Ohio. "Even the best sex on the planet isn't worth disease."

Certainly monogamy or abstinence are the best solutions. But short of that, if you are unfamiliar with your partner's past, use condoms — even if you don't like it.