Science and society have come a long way in the battle against HIV.

What was once viewed as an imminent death sentence and another excuse to marginalize socially isolated segments of the population, the virus is now manageable; millions of HIV-positive people are healthy decades after infection.

Healthy older people who’ve had HIV more than half their lives are starting to develop other age-related illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Thanks to antiretroviral treatments, a study found in 2017, people with HIV who are 20 years old can expect to live an additional 54.9 years, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In the 1980s and1990s, that life expectancy was only 11.8 more years.

Now, the prospect of longevity opens up another line of scientific inquiry: Healthy older people who’ve had HIV more than half their lives are starting to develop other age-related illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

How will these “comorbid” illnesses interact as HIV-positive elders age?

To address this need, the National Institutes of Health is backing a first-of-its kind analysis into the long-term health outlook for aging, HIV-positive men and women.

The organization recently awarded $14 million for scientists at the University of Miami to study the pulmonary and cardiovascular effects — as well as other non-infectious conditions — of both male and female HIV patients over a seven-year period.

They plan to gather more than 270 people for the study from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metropolitan area, which has the highest rate of newly contracted HIV cases in the U.S. These people — including 130 women, who have previously enrolled in an effort called the Women’s Interagency HIV Study (WIHS) — will consist of people with HIV infections and others who are merely at risk of the virus.

“As people live longer, they are more likely to develop comorbid illnesses. … We are hoping to learn about what these long-term consequences of HIV infection are in men and women. These include heart disease, lung disease, metabolic and degenerative diseases such as diabetes and osteoporosis,” said Dr. Deborah Jones Weiss, a professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and principal researcher in the study.

“Understanding the long-term impact of illnesses comorbid with HIV will allow us to better design guidelines for health over the lifespan.” 

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