July 28, 2009
The life expectancy of people who have been newly diagnosed with HIV appears to be growing every year, at least for people fortunate enough to live in resource-rich countries with access to HIV treatment. We're still not at the point where the life expectancy for an HIVer is the same as people who don't have HIV, but we're getting closer.
The latest evidence to support this hope comes from a massive, major international study published in the July 26 issue of the highly respected British medical journal Lancet. The ambitious study involved a total of 43,355 HIV-positive people in Canada, Western Europe and the United States, all of whom had begun taking HIV meds for the first time somewhere between 1996 and 2005.
Researchers took a look at how many of these people had died since the study began (2,056, or about 5 percent) and then crunched the numbers to provide a rough estimate of how long HIVers could expect to live if they were on HIV meds -- and what factors might increase or decrease that estimate.
Generally speaking, the researchers discovered that the more recently a person started HIV treatment, the longer their life expectancy became. Here's how the findings broke down:
|Year HIV Treatment Started||Age When Starting HIV Treatment||Life Expectancy|
In 2004, life expectancy for the entire U.S. population was 77.8 years. Based on the chart above, that means that a person with HIV in the U.S. who started treatment in 2005 could expect to live about 90 percent as long as anybody else in the country.
That's stunningly good news when you consider that, just 15 years ago, doctors generally believed you had about 10 years to live once you were diagnosed with HIV.
The most important thing to keep in mind when trying to make sense of a study like this is that, although it does provide specific life expectancy numbers, these numbers should be taken in stride. At most, the people in this study have been followed for 11 years (the researchers used data through 2007 for the study), and it's been less than 30 years since we even realized that HIV exists. So there's no way anybody can say for certain that somebody who started HIV meds in 1996 will live another 36 years. The researchers just made the best estimates they could with the information they had available. Besides, no matter how many crystal ball-toting psychics might try to convince you otherwise, nobody has the ability to predict exactly many years a specific person will live when they've been newly diagnosed with HIV.
It's also important to note that each of the groupings the researchers made were all-inclusive. The life-expectancy numbers were just an average, and there are many factors that can extend or shorten any person's life, much less a person with HIV.
The researchers noted that some well-established truths about living with HIV also held true in this study, namely that people with a history of injection-drug use and people who started HIV meds with a low CD4 count (below 200) were more likely to live shorter lives.
They also saw that women tended to fare better than men, although they theorized that this is because women tend to get diagnosed with HIV earlier than men, thanks to laws in place in many parts of the world to test all pregnant women for HIV when they enter care.
When you take it all together, this is just the latest bit of encouraging news that, as HIV medications become stronger, easier to take and less likely to cause severe side effects, people with HIV are living longer lives. (The last major study to examine the life-expectancy issue, which involved every single HIV-positive person in Denmark, reached similar findings.)
It's also yet another convincing piece of research that demonstrates how important it is to start treatment early if you live in a part of the world where you have access to effective HIV medications. And, of course, it's even more fodder for the growing chorus of health care experts who are clamoring for HIV testing to be made a routine part of everybody's health care, so that people who have HIV can enter treatment before the virus has a chance to do much damage.