It is natural to wonder how long you will live if you have HIV. While everyone will assure you that it’s a treatable disease — and most certainly — what it really means in terms of not only your longevity, but your quality of life as well. ?
While certain considerations play a role, overall, the outlook is extremely good. With advances in ART, people living with HIV today can expect to live longer and healthier lives than ever before if treatment is started early and taken as prescribed.
This article takes a look at what current research has to say about HIV and life expectancy. It also explores some of the factors that influence life expectancy, including those that may recapture the benefits that modern antiretroviral therapy offers.
What does current research say?
At the time of the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in 1996, the average life expectancy of a 20-year-old young man newly infected with HIV was 10 years. With a new generation of drugs that are not only safer but more effective, those numbers have skyrocketed.
According to research from the long-standing Organization for Cooperative Research and Design (NA-ACCORD) on AIDS in North America, a 20-year-old man who starts HIV treatment today can live into his early 70s.
With a life expectancy of about 77 years for the general population of the United States, This means that people who receive early HIV treatment can lead almost normal lives. Some can expect to do much better.
People on HIV treatment can have a near-normal life expectancy if diagnosed and treated early.
Factors that reduce life expectancy
Despite these advances, there are factors that can increase or decrease the life expectancy of people living with HIV. These range from things we can control (such as taking a pill every day) to things we cannot (such as race or poverty).
These factors not only affect how a person responds to treatment, but also whether they can access treatment in the first place. So how long does a person with HIV live? maybe Living with HIV is often very different from an individual perspective.
Furthermore, HIV is only part of the long-term concern. Even among people on treatment, the risk of non-HIV-related illnesses, such as cancer or heart disease, is much higher than in the general population and can occur anywhere as early as 10 up to 15 years.
These concerns are so serious that a person with HIV today is more likely to die prematurely from a non-HIV-related illness than from an HIV-related illness.
There are many factors that can affect the life expectancy of people living with HIV. This includes a person’s access to treatment and adherence to treatment. Even if they could, they are still at higher risk for non-HIV-related diseases, such as some cancers, than the general population.
Losses in the years of life
There is not always a straight line between how certain risk factors increase or decrease the life expectancy of people living with HIV. This is because people tend to have overlapping risk factors.
Take, for example, black men who have sex with men (MSM). The combination of racism, poverty, homophobia and stigma – as well as factors of biological vulnerability to HIV – gives black MSM in the US a 50/50 chance HIV infection in life.
There is other research that illustrates how individual risk factors can reduce life expectancy in people with HIV.
HIV treatment is most effective when started in the early stages of infection when the CD4 count is high. CD4 count measures the number of CD4 T cells in a blood sample. These are the white blood cells that HIV targets to infect, which gradually destroys more and more over time. A CD4 count – which can range from 0 to 1,300 or more – is a strong indicator of how strong or weak your immune system is.
For most people who get treatment early, the CD4 count will return to normal (500 or higher). For those who delay treatment, the CD4 count may never fully recover, leaving the person vulnerable to opportunistic infections.
Studies have shown that starting HIV treatment with a CD4 count below 200 reduces life expectancy by an average of 8 years compared to people starting treatment with a CD4 count above 200.
Studies have shown that smokers with HIV today lose more years of life from smoking than from any other independent cause. What’s more, the risk of dying from cigarette smoking with HIV infection was twice as high in smokers, dropping an average of 12 years from their life expectancy.
According to a 2013 study published in Clinical infectious diseaseA 35-year-old cigarette smoker with HIV has an average life expectancy of about 63 years.
Race and life expectancy among people living with HIV are closely linked. This is largely due to the high rates of poverty in communities of color. Without access to quality health care, insurance, housing and employment, a person is not only more susceptible to HIV, but also less able to effectively control their disease. .
This is reflected in the current mortality rate. According to a 2012 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the mortality rate among blacks with HIV in the United States is no less than 13% higher than the rate of whites with HIV.
HIV-infected injecting drug users (IDUs) suffer loss of life years due to both HIV-related and non-HIV-related diseases.
Due to lower adherence rates, the rate of severe opportunistic infections is higher among HIV-infected people who inject drugs than in non-injecting drug users. IDUs are also more likely to have co-infections such as hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases that reduce life expectancy.
All told, the mortality rate among IDUs with HIV is nearly twice that of HIV-infected people who do not inject drugs.
Among the factors that directly reduce life expectancy in people with HIV are smoking, people of color and injecting drug use. Delaying HIV treatment can also reduce life expectancy. Poverty and discrimination are an integral part.
Studies show that people living with HIV today can live a near-normal life expectancy if treatment is started early and taken every day as prescribed. Even so, there are things that can impair a person’s ability to do so.
This includes factors such as poverty, stigma, racism and homophobia that can prevent a person from accessing consistent care and treatment. Other factors such as smoking and injecting drug use are directly related to reduced life years. Delayed treatment also shortens life expectancy because the immune system is less able to recover, leaving the body vulnerable to infections.
A very good word
The statistics are encouraging, but that doesn’t mean you’re less worried about HIV. Ultimately, the choices you make will determine how well you respond to treatment and affect your individual risk of both HIV-related and non-HIV-related illness.
In the end, HIV is more than just pills. You also need to take care of your general health by eating healthy, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and getting recommended vaccinations. By doing so, you only further increase your odds of living a long, healthy HIV life.
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