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HIV and Ageing

Friday, November 11, 2016


Growing older with HIV is now a reality for many women, thanks to the continuous improvement of antiretroviral treatments. This is a joyous development, but it brings some new challenges. With these new challenges comes the need for further research and updated health advice to help women live well, right into their mature years.

Ageing is a natural process and its impact on our health varies from person to person. While the relationship between HIV and Ageing is not fully understood, we do know that current research suggests:

  • The inflammation caused by HIV may accelerate the ageing process
  • The risk of developing a non-communicable disease such as heart disease, liver disease and lung cancer is higher for people living with HIV due to this inflammation
  • Some HIV treatments can affect the kidneys, liver, bones and heart

For women with HIV in particular, we know that ageing may bring the added challenges of:

  • Earlier onset of menopause and perimenopause
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Increased risk of lung cancer
  • Increased risk of osteoporosis (a loss of bone density)
  • Isolation and depression

At Positive Women Victoria, we believe a woman deserves the opportunity to understand how ageing with HIV may impact on her quality of life. Although research in this area is constantly growing and changing, we have compiled a list of 5 points for women to consider when preparing for their mature years. We also include links to sources where you can find more detailed information.

  • 1. Menopause and perimenopause: know the difference

Menopause refers to the end of a woman’s periods or menstrual cycle. This is when her body begins to stop producing the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. It also represents the end of her ability to conceive children. A woman must not have a period for a full twelve months to be considered menopausal.

Symptoms of menopause include:

  • Feeling hot
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling irritable
  • Sweating at night
  • Dryness in the vagina
  • Feeling forgetful or very tired

These symptoms can also be similar to symptoms associated with HIV, so it is best to discuss any changes you notice with your healthcare provider.

Perimenopausal refers to the stage in life when a woman sees noticeable changes in the duration, amount and timing of her periods. Some women with HIV may be diagnosed as perimenopausal worry about their fertility, but it is possible to get pregnant even after being perimenopausal for several years.  More information about menopause.

  • 2. Look after your heart

Studies suggest HIV-related inflammation may contribute to building more plaque in blood vessels, which can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Heart disease and stroke should be taken seriously as they are responsible for more deaths than any other condition in Australia. For women in particular, heart disease can often develop with fewer symptoms or “warning signs” than men.

To maintain good heart health, women should keep their cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar in check with a health professional. They should also embrace regular exercise, quit smoking and maintain a diet low in salt, fat and sugar. More information on heart health.

  • 3.Quit smoking

It’s not just heart health that is impacted by smoking. In fact smoking is one of the four major risk factors for all chronic disease (like diabetes, heart disease and cancer). The other three risk factors are:

  • Consumption of alcohol
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Poor diet

Many of these risk factors can be addressed by making a few lifestyle changes, but smoking is one of the most beneficial as it is related to multiple serious risks to your health.

A recent study in the United States has put a number to this risk for people living with HIV in particular. It found that women entering care for HIV at age 40 who kept smoking lost 6.3 years of life expectancy, compared to people with HIV who never smoked. If these female smokers quit at age 40, they regained an average 4.6 years of life expectancy.

By quitting smoking, you can reduce a significantly increased risk of lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and emphysema – as well as limiting your risk of other HIV-related illnesses such as oral thrush, mouth sores and AIDS-defining pneumonia. Quitting smoking can also decrease the risk and severity of infection with human papillomavirus (HPV or Herpes), which is associated with cervical cancer in women.

Smoking is addictive and the psychological challenge of quitting can be difficult. Thankfully, there are many free services available to help you quit. More on quitting smoking.

4. Get active and outdoors

Another smart move to combat the onset of chronic disease is to make sure you’re getting enough exercise. National recommendations suggest that anything you do that gets your heart pumping for 30 minutes each day is just the ticket to extending your life expectancy. Exercise is also a mood booster and slows some processes of ageing like reduced strength, endurance and mobility. Weight bearing exercises like jogging, walking and dancing can also improve bone density – which can help ward off osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis makes bones brittle and at a higher risk of breaks. This is caused when bones lose minerals like calcium faster than the body can replace them. HIV positive women face an increased risk of osteoporosis but there are a number of easy ways to prevent the condition. Increasing your intake of high-calcium foods (like dairy, salmon or broccoli), exercising regularly and getting more sunlight. An easy double up is to exercise outdoors when the sun is high, like going for a lunchtime walk. More on osteoporosis.

5. Be social and stress less

Both stress and feelings of isolation can increase during ageing. This can be caused by a number of factors including memory changes, changes in how often people socialize and physical illness. Maintaining good social supports in this situation can be a challenge, but it’s important to keep trying. Prolonged stress and social disconnection is associated with an increased risk of depression. Women living with HIV face a slightly higher risk of depression than men and this can also be a factor that leads to brain impairments or dementia. Staying connected to friends, family and an experienced peer supporter or counsellor can help. That way stress can be shared and dealt with as a collective. Positive Women exists exactly for this reason. If you feel things are getting on top of you and you don’t have anyone else to call, we are here. You’re not on your own. More information about depression.

Ultimately ageing is just a term used to describe a body’s stage in life. It should not be a label that suggests limitation or an ending to the things we love and enjoy about life. Ageing does not stop a woman from learning, loving and living with passion and vitality. Although certain things about a woman’s body and mind may shift due to ageing, this shouldn’t prevent her achieving her goals.

If you have any further questions related to growing older with HIV contact us by emailing healthpromotion@positivewomen.org.au or calling 9863 8747 (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm).

You should also discuss any specific concerns with a trusted healthcare provider.