She recalls having a lot of fun dating different guys over the following three years: "We went out for drinks, dinners and sometimes we went back to my place." The freedom of casual dating was great – until Maria contracted chlamydia.
"Some time after I was intimate with my partner at the time, I started having a difficult time going to the washroom. I thought I had a urinary tract infection and then I noticed two small hard sores down there," Maria says. "Immediately I knew what had happened."
Like many other baby boomers these days, Maria and her partner made a conscious decision not to use a condom since the risk of getting pregnant wasn't there. "My partner was also recently divorced so I didn't feel there was any reason to take extra precautions, a decision I definitely regret today. I never would have thought I would get chlamydia in my fifties. I feel embarrassed," she admits.
Dr. Morris Sherman, a practicing hepatologist with Toronto General Hospital and Chair of the Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) commissioned a July 2010 poll, which found baby boomers are having unprotected sex, a storyline that echoes Maria's own: "There's a belief that as you get older the risk of your partner having a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is much lower and that once you're in your forties and above, there's no longer an issue of pregnancy anymore, so people feel they don't need to use condoms."
The national survey, which targeted the baby boomer generation (those aged 46 to 64), found that 56 per cent of boomers are not worried about contracting any STIs and 30 per cent of unmarried boomers confess to engaging in unprotected sex with a new partner since turning 40. In the reality of it, these are staggering numbers considering 70 per cent of these same adults with kids say they have advised their children to use protection when having sex.
What's even more interesting about the boomer generation is along with a newly found zest for sex, these boomers are embracing riskier, more adventurous lifestyles altogether, from online dating to multiple sex partners. Moreover, of the 877 Canadians polled, 57 per cent say they feel freer at this stage of life, and 20 per cent have already gotten or are eager to get a tattoo since turning 40. An further eight per cent are considering getting a piercing if they haven't done so already.
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So why are boomers feeling freer and less culpable? Sherman suggests it's likely a kind of midlife crisis. "People who are newly single [in this age range] feel they want to make a change and do something different and [getting tattoos, piercings and an active sex life] are some of their ways of doing so. Also, the perception is that STIs are diseases of young people who may be highly sexually active and as you get older…the risk is lower but of course that's not true."
Men are adopting riskier dating habits
According to Sherman, there's significant data to show that the newly single have a high frequency of sexually transmitted diseases. Perhaps what's contributing to these more excessive numbers is the male inclination towards engaging in riskier, more adventurous sex. Of the men surveyed, 40 per cent are likely to have a one-night stand, 37 per cent are open to dating strangers and another 37 per cent are not looking for a serious relationship but something a lot more casual. One in five men has participated in unprotected sex with a new partner since turning 40.
For these men – and other adults who are less inhibited about multiple partners, casual sex and choosing not to take the necessary precautions – it is imperative to disclose this information to their family physicians so they can at least get routinely tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) to prevent further spreading STIs because the fact is that the numbers are going up.
The B.C. Center for Disease Control released an annual surveillance report in 2009 that revealed the incidence of sexually contracted chlamydia amongst British Columbia males aged 40-59 years has increased by a whopping 230 per cent since 2001. In comparison, the same study indicates the chlamydia rates amongst females in the same age group and region has gone up by nearly 50 per cent.
"Men, and boomers in general, need to be as cautious as they were in their teenage years and know they are not immortal and are putting themselves at a high risk of contracting multiple STDs," cautions Sherman.
The reality of hepatitis B
The CLF poll found that one in five Canadian boomers don't use condoms regularly anymore since pregnancy is not on their radar at this stage of their lives. Unfortunately, STIs continue to be a risk to all ages and a lack of responsibility about this can be detrimental. When asked what STDs this generation is concerned about, HIV/AIDS, herpes and syphilis were topped the list. However, hepatitis B – a more severe STD as compared to most of the above – ranked low, with only 14 per cent concerned with contracting it. It's a worrisome statistic considering only 39 per cent of the boomer generation is vaccinated against hepatitis B.
The CLF survey further indicates a lack of knowledge when it comes to the severity of hepatits B and its classification as an STD. Hepatitis B – a liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus – has a low profile but is classified in the same category as HIV. In severe cases it can lead to cirrhosis and even cancer of the liver.
Page 2 of 3 – Discover how to achieve a healthy, active sex life on page 3.
The risk of contracting hepatitis B is highest in infants whose biological mothers are carriers. (A carrier is anyone chronically infected with the virus.) Adults, on the other hand, can contract the virus essentially only through sexual activities. "By the time you get into adulthood, you're not really at risk for the roots of transmission that occurs in children, so it's mostly sexual transmission amongst adults," states Sherman.
Carriers can avoid passing the virus onto others by using condoms and disclosing their status to their partners who, in turn, should get routinely tested. But Sherman recommends that essentially any hepatitis B carrier should visit their physician on a regular basis even if they don't need treatment or more intensive follow up.
The importance of an active sex life
Being sexually active is a healthy part of life, provided we take the necessary precautions. Creating emotional and physical connections with our partners are the basic impulses of the human race. It is an adult's prerogative to have casual sex but it is also an adult's responsibility to practise safe sex. Although condoms will not eliminate the risk completely, they certainly reduce the danger by a lot.
Baby boomers are dealing with a lot of change – children leaving home, retirement and, for some, change of marital status. The independence and freedom that comes with this new chapter of life should be experienced with the wisdom of age and heeding the advice passed to younger generations.
But baby boomers are failing to get tested for STIs on a regular basis – and when it comes to hepatitis B, because universal vaccination programs are targeted towards adolescent school children, the responsibility of getting immunized falls on the adult.
As Sherman also points out "public health should be implementing catch-up vaccination campaigns for those who were not vaccinated at school." Since widespread universal immunization wasn't introduced in Canada until the 1990s, baby boomers are at a higher risk than younger generations of contracting such diseases as hepatitis B. Discussing options and receiving ongoing counseling from family physicians are privileges Canadians are afforded.
Maria wishes she had divulged her inclination for casual sex to her family physician. "It was embarrassing going to my doctor after the fact and admitting I had probably contracted an STD," she says. "I wish so badly I had given myself the same sex talk I gave my son in high school: I could have easily avoided chlamydia, the antibiotics and even the hit to the ego. To be honest, it turned me off sex for a long time."
For more information on survey methodology and how to protect yourself from hepatitis B, visit liver.ca
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