By 2015, more than 50% of the United States HIV population will be over 50. There are approximately 120,750 people now living with HIV/AIDS in NYC; 43% are over age 50, 75% are over age 40. Over 30% are co-infected with hepatitis.
What does the future hold for people with HIV and HIV/HCV as they get older?
These statistics and this question furnished the starting point for the New York Buyers’ Club March 28 event HIV and Aging: Living Long and Living Well, presented by Stephen Karpiak, PhD, of the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (ACRIA).
Dr. Karpiak’s background uniquely positions him to paint the full picture behind the bare statistics, and to provide expert guidance through the complex healthcare challenges faced by the growing population of older people with HIV. After two decades as a researcher at Columbia University’s Medical School, Dr. Karpiak moved to Arizona, where he directed AIDS service organizations through the 1990s, including AIDS Project Arizona (which offered a supplements buyers’ club similar to NYBC’s). In 2002, back in NYC, he joined ACRIA as Assistant Director of Research, and was the lead investigator for the agency’s landmark 2006 study, Research on Older Adults with HIV. This report, the first in-depth look at the subject, surveyed 1,000 older HIV-positive New Yorkers on a host of issues, including health status, stigma, depression, social networks, spirituality, sexual behavior, and substance abuse.
Why are there more and more older people with HIV? The first and principal answer is very good news: HIV meds (HAART), introduced more than 20 years ago, have increased survival dramatically. Secondly, a smaller but still significant reason: older people are becoming infected with HIV, including through sexual transmission. (Older people do have sex, though sometimes healthcare providers don’t seem to acknowledge this reality.)
As Dr. Karpiak noted, HAART prevents the collapse of the immune system, and so it serves its main purpose, to preserve and extend life. And yet, as he reminded the audience, HIV infection initiates damaging inflammatory responses in the body that continue even when viral load is greatly suppressed. These inflammatory responses, together with side effects of the HIV meds, give rise to many health challenges as the years pass. In people with HIV on HAART, research over longer time periods has found higher than expected rates of cardiovascular disease, liver disease, kidney disease, bone loss (osteoporosis), some cancers, and neurological conditions like neuropathy.
That brings us to “multi-morbidity management”—a term we weren’t enthused about at first, since it sounded more like medical-speak than the plain talk our NYBC event had promised. But Dr. Karpiak gave us a simple definition: dealing with three or more chronic conditions at the same time (and HIV counts as one). He then made the case that this is a critical concept to grasp if older people with HIV are going to get optimal care. Multi-morbidity management, he explained, is a well-accepted healthcare concept in geriatric medicine, which recognizes that older people may have several conditions and will benefit from a holistic approach in order to best manage their health. Treating one condition at a time, without reference to other co-existing conditions, often doesn’t work, and sometimes leads to disastrously conflicting treatments.
And here’s where Dr. Karpiak warned about “polypharmacy”–another medical term worth knowing. “Polypharmacy” can be defined as using more than five drugs at a time. Frequently, it comes about when healthcare provider(s) add more and more pills to treat a number of conditions. But this approach can backfire, because, as a rule of thumb, for every medication added to a regimen, there’s a 10% increase in adverse reactions. That’s why adding more and more drugs to treat evolving conditions may be a poor approach to actually staying well.
In closing, Dr. Karpiak focused especially on a finding from ACRIA’s 2006 study: the most prevalent condition for older people with HIV, aside from HIV itself, was depression. Over two-thirds of those surveyed had moderate to severe depression. Yet while depression can have serious conse-quences–such as threatening adherence to HIV meds–it has remained greatly under-treated. It may seem an obvious truth, but as Dr. Karpiak underlined, psychosocial needs and how they’re met will play a big role in the health of people with HIV as they age. What social and community supports are available becomes a big medical question, and how healthcare providers and service organizations respond to it can make for longer, healthier lives for people with HIV.
And now we come back to NYBC’s contribution to the discussion on HIV and Aging. While NYBC doesn’t keep track of such information in a formal way, we do recognize that quite a few of our members have been using supplements since the days of our predecessor organization DAAIR–going back 20 years now. That’s a lot of accumulated knowledge about managing symptoms and side effects among people with HIV! To accompany the March 28 presentation, our Treatment Director George Carter drew up a pocket guide to complementary and alternative approaches: HIV and Aging – Managing and Navigating. Partly derived from his long experience, and partly drawn from a 2012 Canadian report, the guide ranges over those kinds of “co-morbidities” that Dr. Karpiak spoke of, including cardiovascular, liver, kidney, bone, and mental health conditions. Interventions or management strategies include supplements, but also diet and exercise recommendations, as well as psychosocial supports (counseling, support groups, meditation, and activism).
NYBC has also updated several info sheets from its website and blog, offering these as a way to address some of the most common healthcare issues facing people with HIV as they get older: cardiovascular topics; :digestive health; NYBC’s MAC-Pack (a close equivalent to K-PAX®); key antioxidants NAC and ALA and their potential to counter inflammatory responses; and supplement alternatives to anti-anxiety prescription drugs. These info sheets, together with the HIV and Aging – Managing and Navigating pocket guide, are available on the NYBC website and blog.
We hope that our HIV and Aging: Living Long and Living Well event has been useful to all. Special thanks to our audience on March 28, many of whom brought excellent questions to the session. Now let’s continue the conversation…
To your health,
New York Buyers’ Club