Not only aging, but thriving with HIV, by Dr. David Vance

David Vance, PhD, MGS

National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day is September 18, an important indicator of how far we have come in the fight against this disease that has hovered over us since the early 1980s. When I read a report from the CDC in the late 1990s that the mortality rate for HIV reduced sharply after the advent of the new drug cocktails, I was hopeful that people would actually age with HIV.

My enthusiasm resulted in a symposium at a national conference in 2001; sadly, only 7 people attended and 4 of us were presenters. Perhaps it was too soon to wave the victory flag, but over the past two decades, I have been glad to see others’ enthusiasm grow as well. The research in this area has proliferated so much, in fact, there are now entire national conferences focused solely on aging with HIV.

So what have we learned? First, if people are actually taking their HIV medications as prescribed and involved in their care, they will age with this disease. In fact, most longevity studies demonstrate a nearly equal length of life for those with HIV compared to those uninfected with this disease — a reality most did not expect when it emerged in the 1980s. Second, the risk for HIV-positive individuals developing comorbidities, particularly heart disease and cognitive problems, is more likely to occur with age. And third, as they navigate the intersection of HIV and aging, many people report developing valuable skills and insights in mastery, mindfulness, thankfulness, resilience, advocacy and community that they utilized in other areas of their lives. In fact, in one of my studies on spirituality, 44% of adults aging with HIV actually reported that they considered this disease to be a blessing – they were able to find the positives in being HIV-positive.

National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day was established by the AIDS Institute to focus on the challenges faced by an aging HIV-positive population. In addition to discussing the medical understanding of the aging process and is impact on HIV/AIDS, it’s also important to realize how powerful it is that we’re moving head.

The focus of moving ahead is not just living with HIV, but to successfully age with HIV. Gerontologists have been studying this for years and know that the following steps are the recipe to successful aging  with HIV.

  1. Physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy body and brain, and this is no different for HIV-positive individuals.
  2. Comorbidities that accompany aging and HIV, such as heart disease and cognitive problems, must be aggressively treated to avoid complications down the road.
  3. Social connections to people and community are essential. We are social beings and need to both give and receive love and support.
  4. Stay positive! Studies show that those who are more optimistic have better immune systems and live longer. Look around…  There is a lot to be positive about!

David Vance, PhD, MGS, is interim Associate Dean for Research and Scholarship. He joined UAB School of Nursing in 2006 as the first non-nurse faculty member. Vance is a psychologist who actively researches neurocognitive aging and HIV, and he brings to the Office of Research and Scholarship more than 20 years of research experience and scholarship that includes more than 230 peer-reviewed articles and more than 400 presentations.

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