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Unexpectedly Reprieved: Getting Old with HIV

While the Coachella Valley has a higher than average population of people living with HIV, perhaps more revealing is that within that group, approximately 70% are between the ages of 49 and 65 – bell curve baby boomers. And the kicker is that we’re still here at all. During the worst of this 33-years-and-counting epidemic, being HIV-positive meant you either had AIDS or soon would – at best, you might last a couple of years.

Fortunately, that’s no longer the case. Many older people with HIV today are living relatively normal, if somewhat diminished, lives, albeit only by close medical monitoring and strict adherence to a regimen of some dicey drugs. But aging with HIV has become its own area of treatment and medical study.

Besides the ravages of normal aging, research is proving that the presence of HIV over time both increases risk of various diseases and conditions and accelerates them. Most common are higher incidence and/or premature cases of cognitive decline, dementia, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis (often in the hip), depression, digestive disorders (upsets from all those meds), vital organ diseases and various cancers, especially lymphomas. Underlying all this is often a perpetual state of cellular inflammation, the body’s ongoing response to the virus. Add in a prematurely ended career, worry about insurance, access to healthcare and persistent stigma around HIV, and it’s no wonder depression is often a major problem in older patients.  While the actual parameters measuring correlations between HIV and acceleration of natural aging processes remain hard to measure, the research confirms these trends.

Certainly, aging for everyone means facing a host of health challenges and, eventually, our own mortality. I can’t speak for all HIV-positive people, but I for one don’t want to be perceived as a special case, or worse, known as a tedious hypochondriac just because I live with a chronic health condition; so do countless others. I learned a long time ago that no one really wants to hear about your ills and chills (hopefully, your doctor is an exception). But for the sake of enlightenment, it’s helpful to know more about aging with HIV because it’s now so common here in the desert. It’s likely that someone you know is dealing with it. And sometimes, it helps them just to talk about it without fear of discomfort, criticism or outright revulsion.

If you would like to educate yourself about HIV and aging, there’s a growing list of online resources. A good place to start is the federal government’s website: aids.gov and the comprehensive webmd.com/hiv-aids. And locally, the Desert AIDS Project site, desertaidsproject.org, is a wealth of regularly updated information.

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