Between 2004 and 2015, the number of new HIV diagnoses increased by 2.1% each year among this age group, with people over 50 accounting for 17.3% of new HIV cases diagnosed in Europe in 2015.
Experts argue sexual health programs should increasingly target this demographic, as well as the younger population.
“Our findings suggest a new direction in which the HIV epidemic is evolving,” said Lara Tavoschi, a scientific officer at the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), who led the study published Tuesday in the medical journal Lancet HIV. “We see a steady increase in the number of new (HIV) diagnoses among older adults in the region.”
The route of transmission was mostly heterosexual, Tavoschi confirmed.
“We need to increase awareness campaigns among older age groups,” she told CNN.
Rise for some, fall for others
Using routine annual surveillance data from 31 countries, reported to the European Surveillance System between 2004 and 2015, the team at the ECDC analyzed new HIV diagnoses among people aged 15 and above.
The rate of HIV diagnosis among people over 50 increased in 16 countries, including Germany, Ireland and Belgium, and decreased in just one country, Portugal.
Rates were highest in Estonia, Latvia and Malta, where more than seven new cases were diagnosed per 100,000 older people by 2015. Numbers also increased among younger people in these countries, aged 15 to 49 years.
In certain countries, however, such as the United Kingdom and Norway, new diagnoses went down among young people, but increased in the over-50 population, with more than a 3.6% increase in newly diagnosed HIV cases each year in both of these nations.
“This is a result of successful awareness campaigns that may not have targeted older adults enough,” Tavoschi said, speculating on one reason behind the trend.
England has a national HIV prevention program in place, for example, using local activities and social marketing to promote national HIV testing weeks and a campaign called “It starts with me” to increase testing and condom use, reduce stigma and inform people about sexually transmitted infections and practicing safe sex.
Previous studies have shown a stigma attached to older people having a sex life being at play, added Tavoschi, and the lack of sex assumed among this age group “is not a real reflection of what is happening in this group today,” she said, preventing health care providers from discussing sexual health with older patients.
The data also showed that while diagnoses among men are rising among younger and older people across Europe, the numbers are decreasing among younger women, but increasing among older ones. For now, “it’s unknown why,” Tavoschi told CNN.