Thirty years after the discovery of HIV, a new study reveals that people living with HIV in later life feel they face an uncertain future. For many, the longer they live with the virus, the more they feel the quality of life to be compromised.

Lower quality of life

The study, led by Keele University, shows that there is a link between the length of time older people have lived with HIV and reduced satisfaction with their quality of life. On a five-point scale, those living with HIV for 10 years had a median score of 3 for Quality of Life, whereas those who had been more recently diagnosed had a median score of 4 – a difference of 20%.

Among gay men, quality of life began to drop off after ten years of living with HIV, then rose slightly. But the perceived quality of life of Black African and White heterosexual men and women dropped slightly and steadily over time, possibly due to differences in HIV-related support from friends.

Tough impact on social life

There was no link between the length of time someone had been living with HIV and how they felt about their health, suggesting that living with HIV has more adverse effects on people’s social and personal lives than on their perceived physical wellbeing over time.

Dr Dana Rosenfeld, a social gerontologist at Keele University, explains: ‘The UK population of people with HIV is rapidly ageing, both because of medications that extend lives and increased incidence of HIV acquisition in later years.

‘Our results show that the consequences of living with HIV in later life are much more significant and complex than we could have foreseen 30 years ago.’

Distinguishing between age and HIV

‘People living with HIV find it problematic to distinguish between the physical effects of ageing and symptoms associated with HIV. There are few people who have already experienced ageing with HIV to whom they can turn for guidance. This makes it even more difficult to understand the significance of physical changes, even those that are ultimately not HIV-related.

‘Perhaps more significantly, many older people living with HIV feel vulnerable to age-related stigma. Acquiring HIV in later life can threaten relations with friends, family and other forms of social support which they assumed they could rely in later years.’

No chance of sex

The study showed that many felt the virus impacted negatively on their relationships, with almost 80% saying they felt closest to friends – but just 63% saying they’d told their friends they had the virus. And although a third of the sample was partnered, many – primarily but not exclusively heterosexuals – felt that their chances of having a romantic relationship were compromised or even erased entirely due to their HIV status.

David Asboe, a clinician at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital working with older people with HIV, said: ‘HIV health professionals are already adapting medical treatment and care to take account of HIV and its effect on other conditions of ageing such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, this study – the first of its kind – demonstrates the importance of how ageing also dramatically affects the psychological and social aspects of quality of life with HIV.’

If you’d like to talk to someone about living with HIV, or need any kind of support, advice and information about sexual health, you can call THT Direct free and in confidence on 0808 802 1221.