The middle-aged sex bomb

Condom advert featuring men from the 1970s
Image caption The adverts are targeted at people in middle age

We're used to seeing sexual health messages aimed at young people.

The 16-24 market is regularly targeted, being urged to discuss contraception, sexual health and sexual habits openly and honestly.

What we're not used to seeing, however, are messages geared towards older people.

Last year, the Family Planning Association (FPA) launched the first campaign aimed at the middle-aged.

Featuring pictures of people dressed in 70s clothes, and an image of a condom, it aimed to get older generations to think about protection.

Julie Bentley, the chief executive of FPA, said at the time: "There is very little sexual health information and services for the over 50s, and current campaigns, however good, are exclusively for the young."

So is she right - particularly with regard to sexual health in this age group in Scotland?

There is certainly reason to be concerned about the growth of STIs in this age group.

According to figures from a National Services Scotland (NSS) report, genital warts almost doubled in the over 50s from 1999-2008.

Herpes and chlamydia are also on the increase. But the number of diagnoses is low, especially compared with those among the younger population.

Lesley Wallace, of Health Protection Scotland, gives a possible explanation for the increase.

'Intimidating place'

She said: "There's a combination of increased amount of testing [and] so increased diagnosis. It's something we want to keep a watchful eye on."

"People need to understand this is a growing problem," said NHS Fife's Dr Indranil Banarjee, a consultant who sees older patients regularly at his clinic.

He said that although the patients were older, they could also be much more naive.

"We've had instances where parents have been nudged into the clinic by their children", he said.

"They [the children] know, through all the information they get through the media, schools and colleges, that the rule of thumb is, if you're with a new partner, you should get yourself checked out."

Image caption A quarter of the over 55s think they have zero chance of catching an STI

Someone who wasn't aware about the need to keep themselves checked out was Mary - whose name has been changed to preserve her anonymity.

Mary contracted HIV aged 67 after having unprotected sex in her 40s and 50s.

Having caught a strain of pneumonia since, she now has to live with AIDS, and described how a lack of knowledge about condoms prevented her from using one.

"Condoms were for contraception. And because I was sterilised, I thought I didn't need one. I never thought anything could happen to me - and it's scary", she said.

It's easy to see why the over 45s may be reluctant to get checked out - a clinic can be an intimidating place if you've never been to one.

But there's nothing to be intimidated by, according to Hilda Smith, senior nurse at the genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinic in Kirkcaldy.

"A woman can go behind the curtain on her own and take her own swab," she explained.

"And that will test for chlamydia and gonorrhoea, so long as they don't have any symptoms."

The clinic also offers blood tests for syphilis and HIV.

For Hilda, it is just part of maintaining good health.

"You go to the dentist to get your teeth checked out, if you're having sex, you should come to the clinic and have your sexual health checked out. It's as simple as that," she said.

'Emotional issues'

According to a 2009 Royal Pharmaceutical Society survey of the over 55s, 25% believed their chances of acquiring an STI were next to zero, compared with 13% of those aged 18-24.

So why are older generations so complacent?

Professor Sue Scott, pro-vice chancellor for Research at Glasgow Caledonian University, has a study background in sexuality and gender.

She points to an increase in relationship breakdown, as well as sexual liberalisation and easier access to partners through the internet as factors which lead more people in middle-age to be seeking new sexual relationships, which in turn can create new problems.

Importantly, Professor Scott claims it is also a matter of having sexual confidence and negotiation skills.

Her advice is: "Find somebody you can talk to, a friend, whatever works."

Sue Maxwell, of Relationships Scotland, agrees. "Generally, in Scotland, we don't talk enough about our sexual lives.

"We might chat about them, we might gossip about them, but we don't talk enough to our partners enough about what we need."

So increasing awareness, developing confidence and talking about sexual concerns all seem key to defusing the middle-aged sex bomb.

For Dr Banarjee, it is a simple question of looking after yourself.

"Especially [use a condom] if it's with a new partner," he said.

"It's also very important to negotiate, and to be sensible, and to a certain extent, be practical with these things."

"There are emotional issues attached to it," Dr Banarjee said, "but then, at the end of the day, your health is your responsibility."

Medical Matters: The Middle-Aged Sex Bomb airs on Wednesday 19 January at 1530 GMT on BBC Radio Scotland.

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