Hidden for years by secrecy, shame and in some cases the assumption that their symptoms were simply those of aging, a growing number of older people are emerging as victims of AIDS.
AIDS now occurs far more frequently in people over the age of 50 -- classified as older by those who treat and study AIDS -- than among children under the age of 13.
According to the most recent data from the Federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, there have been 15,696 cases reported in people over 50 as against 2,686 in children under 13. Older people account for 10 percent of the more than 150,000 AIDS cases reported to the government.
"This topic is one that a year ago no one was talking about . . ." said Len McNally, program officer for the New York Community Trust, which finances AIDS programs.
Although federal statistics show that the majority of people over 50 who have AIDS are homosexual or bisexual men who contracted the disease through sexual intercourse, about 17 percent of the victims came in contact with the virus through tainted blood transfusions before routine screening began in 1985. Because older people are more likely to undergo surgery, they were more susceptible than younger people to AIDS transmission through blood transfusions.
Although little research has been done on AIDS among older people, experts say the prevalence of the disease among them raises a number of challenges, both medically and socially.
There is also the risk of delayed diagnosis because many of the initial symptoms of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, such as muscle weakness or forgetfulness, are hallmarks of aging.
Socially, AIDS is an added burden among people who came of age before the sexual permissiveness of the 1960s.