When most people think of “safe sex” they think of young people who don’t know any better. But in fact, the over-50 set — including the newly divorced — may be in most urgent need of a refresher course.

It’s in baby boomers where you’ll find rapidly growing numbers of sexually transmitted infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidence of syphilis and chlamydia in people age 45 to 65 has tripled between 2000 and 2010. Shockingly, in 2005, 24 percent of people with HIV/AIDS were over 50.

There are many reasons this may be happening. Many people feel that if they can no longer get pregnant, they don’t need protection. Older baby boomers are part of the “free love” generation, and HIV was not an issue back then, so it may not be on their radar.

They are also part of a generation that did not talk about sex before having it. That’s something the younger generation has a much easier time doing. My patients who are newly free and dating after age 50 have a very difficult time talking about sexual issues with their potential partners. But as you’ll see, it’s crucial.

The use of drugs for erectile dysfunction and the high divorce rate in the United States may be part of the reason that more seniors are having sex (and with more partners). A survey conducted at the University of Chicago through the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP) found that 38 percent of men and 17 percent of women age 75 to 85 were having sex at least once a year.

Getting older may come with certain benefits, such as not getting pregnant. But on the downside, our immune systems weaken with age, making both men and women more prone to infection. The thinning vaginal walls of older women make them more prone to tears, and this makes for easier transmission of infections, particularly viral infections such as HIV.

No matter how hard it may seem, it is important to have “the talk” before engaging in sex, as well as take other steps to protect yourself. Here are some important tips:

  • Use condoms (there are male and female forms). Using condoms is the best way to stay safe. Unfortunately, people over 50 aren’t using them very often. A study done at Indiana University found that 91 percent of men over 50 did not use a condom when having sex with a date or a casual acquaintance and 70 percent did not use one with someone they had just met. The NSHAP found that 70 percent of single women age 58 to 93 did not use a condom the last time they had sex.
  • Talk to your partner and get to know them. Ask about their previous sexual history and whether or not they’ve been tested for HIV. According to the CDC, 20 to 25 percent of HIV-positive people don’t know they are infected.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about past sexual exposures (yours and theirs) such as herpes and other infections. Some 50 to 70 percent of women have genital herpes, and studies have found that 80 percent of women infected with the virus (based on blood tests) have not been diagnosed. Remember that herpes is transmissible even when no sores are present —another very good reason for using condoms.
  • Limit the number of sexual partners. The more partners you have, the greater your likelihood for infections.
  • Get a check-up with your regular doctor every year and talk about your sexual practices and concerns. He or she can monitor you for sexually transmitted infections. This can be done easily with blood and urine tests.

It’s wonderful that we can have active sex lives as we age. Just remember that safe sex advice is for everyone. Getting old can be fun, but in the words of Bette Davis, “Old age ain't no place for sissies.” Be smart and be safe.

Robin Miller, MD, is a practicing integrative medicine physician at Triune Integrative Medicine in Medford, Oregon. She is a medical reporter for KOBI-5 NBC and has appeared on "The Doctor Oz Show." She is co-author of "The Smart Woman's Guide to Midlife and Beyond."

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