AIDS treatments accelerate aging process

July 1, 2008 7:27:46 PM PDT
Doctors who treat HIV and AIDS patients are seeing something relatively new among their older clients. For some unknown reason, some appear to be growing older faster. Diseases that should be showing up in their 80s are manifesting themselves in their 50s and 60s.

Diabetes, strokes, heart diseases, kidney failure and hip replacements are typically associated with the elderly, not always with 60-year-olds.

David Priess is HIV positive. A few years ago, he had quadruple heart surgery and suffers from neuropathy, a condition caused when nerves are damaged. It's brought on by the virus or the drugs used to treat it.

Priess has a hard time moving his fingers.

"I kept thinking of my grandmother and how she would ride horses and run in her 70s. I couldn't think of doing now, either doing now even though I would love to," said Priess.

In the 1980s and early 1990s AIDS was a death sentence. Then came the antiretroviral drugs, saving millions of lives. But that treatment because it is so toxic may be responsible for accelerating the aging process. Or is it the aids virus itself which could have done irreversible damage?

New research is trying to find a connection.

"We are trying to see if there are cellular changes that are occurring. HIV specifically infects the immune cells of our body and there is evidence that there may be some rapid turnover of those cells," said Dr. Victor Valcour from UCSF.

A high cell turnover is not good because the body may not be replacing those cells as quickly.

"I forget things. I'm 63 so it's not uncommon as you age you start having a little bit of problems surrounding things, but it seems to be accelerating," said AIDS patient Will Boemer.

Dr. Valcour is also doing research on aging among the HIV population and the impact on brain function.

"People who say they used to do complicated spreadsheets in their work and now they have more difficulty with the complicated spreadsheets," said Dr. Valcour.

For years, doctors have known the virus can cause damage to the brain in a way that may lead to dementia.

Bill Kilpatrick is a therapist at New Leaf, a support group for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. He's seen an increase in the number of gay men over 50 suffering from multiple illnesses.

"Any chronic illness really does begot depression. I'm not a doctor but that's how I see it in the sessions and then when you have the actual situations that are overwhelming, you have depression," said Kilpatrick.

Doctors and their patients also worry about combining anti-depressants with antiretroviral drugs and medication for chronic illnesses.

Priess was diagnosed with HIV in 1993. Back then, he started with 18 pills in the morning before breakfast.

"I am an optimist. I have to be an optimist otherwise it would drive you crazy," said Priess.

The Department of Public Health AIDS Office says in San Francisco, the number of people 50 and older living with HIV has increased 55 percent from 3,439 in 2002 to 5,318 in 2006. Nationally, it's 77 percent.

Gabriel Delgado of Oakland remembers when the epidemic claimed so many lives.

"I saw them when they were body building types to where they were just a bag of bones and I saw them take their last breath," said Delgado.

Delgado himself was diagnosed in 1993. He says nothing can compare to that first wave of suffering.

"I've seen it. Now if it happens to me at this stage of the game, it wouldn't shock me," said Delgado.

Aging with HIV and AIDS is yet one more challenge he and others will have to cope with.


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