The National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities recently awarded Michael Plankey, associate professor of medicine and an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Georgetown University Medical Center, with a $2.1 million dollar grant over five years to study healthy aging among HIV-positive gay and bisexual males.
Professor and Director of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health Ron Stall will work with Plankey to conduct the longitudinal study, which involves 1,600 participants. Participants in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study are gay or bisexual men aged 40 or older gay, with and without HIV. MACS, which started in 1983, has so far studied 7,000 gay men nationwide.
The research will require participants to return every six months for the next three years to undergo physical examinations, give blood specimens and answer demographic, medical and behavioral questionnaires.
Plankey and Stall developed the idea in 2013 in response to a lack of studies that investigated strengths and countermeasures that can be taken to help HIV sufferers, as most studies conducted examined their health risks only.
Stall emphasized the impact this largely negative outlook has on those afflicted with HIV in preventing the discovery of helpful measures.
“One of the big themes in the study that we are looking at is that the overarching trope for describing gay men in general, but for sure older gay men, … ‘We don’t have enough knowledge, we have too much sex, we use too many drugs, we engage in too many bad behaviors’ and that all of these things need to be fixed,” Stall said.
According to Stall, the study is particularly timely, as currently more than half of all people living with HIV are older than age 50. Stall said that this demographic group has been allowed to live with their disease and age because of great medical advancements, but research into ways to help this aging population suffering from multiple afflictions remains deficient.
Stall noted that although many have thrived despite being HIV-positive, there are new challenges presented by aging that add to the difficulties of living with the virus.
“You’ve got a whole cohort of people who are older, gay men who have lived with the effects of homophobia their entire lives, some of whom are also HIV-positive and fighting from the effects of a serious disease who are also fighting with the many health problems that are concomitant of aging itself and the social aspects of aging,” Stall said.
Stall said this group of participants is ideal for the study seeing as they represent both the HIV-positive and negative populations and are all facing the challenges of aging.
“We do not know how to take care of all of these multiple health and social issues with a new cohort of HIV-positive people who are now entering old age,” Stall said. “And so this cohort is perfectly set up to help us answer those questions.”
Plankey said the project will allow for the identification of resiliencies, which are healthy living conditions that can improve medical care for both infected and uninfected gay and bisexual men.
“A good part of this grant is to identify what those resiliencies are,” Plankey said. “This particular grant is to discover the full compass of resiliencies that keep men from risky behaviors and poor health outcomes.”
Stall emphasized the study’s aim in gaining insight into these resiliencies to truly help those who are struggling.
“Many of these guys are balancing and dealing with the challenges of aging, homophobia, HIV and they are doing spectacularly well and so maybe if we focused on what are the strengths of this population and what are the resiliencies,” Stall said. “Then we would also be able to export these resiliencies to other men who aren’t doing as well and raise the levels of health in the whole population. So that’s the hope and the excitement of this study.”
Stall expressed excitement to be able to partake in one of the principal studies on this age group.
“There haven’t been very many studies on aging among gay people, and this will for sure be one of the largest and one of the first and so it’s a remarkable opportunity to be part of this,” Stall said.
Program Director of the National HIV/AIDS Initiative at Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law Jeffrey S. Crowley said the study truly hits at the heart of the problem and comes at the right time to provide the necessary support for the population participating in the study.
“If we are to realize our goal and the vision for the country’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy in which all people living with HIV are well supported in systems of care that enable them to lead long and healthy lives, then we must glean lessons from the men of the MACS cohort that have been heroes of the HIV response for more than 30 years,” Crowley wrote in an email to The Hoya. “This study is being led by visionary leaders in the field and as we increasingly acknowledge the need to promote resiliency within the LGBT community as a primary strategy for reducing the impact of HIV on gay and bisexual men, it cannot come at a more opportune time.”