Life expectancy of people living with HIV

HIV suppresses the immune system, making it vulnerable to attacks by diseases and foreign agents. However, with the right treatment and care, many people with the condition can live normal lives for many years.

A person showing the HIV symbol

Key takeaways:

  • The life expectancy of people living with HIV varies depending on an individual's health status and how they treat and manage their health conditions. However, people with HIV can live for more than 10 years.
  • Early diagnosis and treatment can increase the life expectancy of a person with HIV.
  • Different antiretroviral treatments, such as protease inhibitors, entry inhibitors, and integrase inhibitors, can help a person living with HIV live longer and healthier lives.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a sexually transmitted infection that compromises a person’s immune system, making the person’s body vulnerable to other diseases and infectious agents. 

HIV usually progresses to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) if left untreated. AIDS is the stage 3 progression of HIV. People with AIDS have a severely compromised immune system, a high viral load, and are highly infectious. 

AIDS is diagnosed when a person’s CD4 cell count (cells that trigger the body’s response to infections) falls below 200 cells/mm or when a person infected with HIV develops certain opportunistic infections (increasing number of severe illnesses).

As of 2020, about 37.7 million people in the world were HIV positive. Out of the 37.7 million people with HIV, 36 million were adults, while 1.7 million were children between the ages of 0-14 years. About 53% of the figure were women and girls.

Not everyone with HIV will get AIDS. However, without antiretroviral drugs, HIV usually advances to AIDS after about 10 years. For some people, advancement happens faster. The chances of survival decrease with an AIDS diagnosis.

HIV and life expectancy

People with HIV can live a long and healthy life if they are diagnosed and treated early. 

A Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) report showed that the life expectancy for people diagnosed with HIV and receiving treatments increased from around 1996.

According to the report, the total life expectancy of a 20-year-old person with HIV in 1996 was 39 years. However, this bumped up to about 70 years in 2011.

This can be attributed to the development of new antiretroviral medicines that are highly effective for treating HIV. 

Also, the survival rate of people diagnosed with HIV has increased over the years. Just as mortality among HIV-positive persons is reducing, the causes of death are changing. 

A study on HIV medicine says that 78 percent of deaths between 1988 and 1995 were caused by AIDS. However, the figure dropped to 15% between 2005 and 2009. 

A report by HealthDay News published on WebMD indicates that people who tested positive for HIV and started treatment early have almost the same lifespan as people without HIV. However, they need more care and attention to avoid comorbidities.

HIV treatment

There are different types of antiretroviral treatment for treating HIV

HIV antiretroviral treatment helps slow down the progression of HIV to stage 3 and AIDS. Healthcare professionals typically recommend that people who have HIV take three or more antiretroviral medications daily to suppress the amount of the virus in the body.

Over the years, different classes of antiretroviral medications have been developed, such as:

  • Protease inhibitors
  • Entry inhibitors
  • Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors
  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors
  • Integrase inhibitors

These medications help make viral load undetectable. According to a 2014 European PARTNER study, an undetectable viral load reduces the risk of HIV transmission.

This discovery initiated the “Treatment as Prevention” strategy, which advocates consistent and constant treatment as a way of preventing the spread of HIV. 

Researchers have continued making discoveries about the human immunodeficiency virus and have steadily made advancements in its treatment. 

Long-term effects of HIV

The outlook is now better for people with HIV compared to the past years. However, this does not rule out the fact that there might be some long-term effects of contracting HIV.

Over time, HIV and its medications may affect a person’s physical appearance by changing how their body metabolizes sugar and fat. This can cause the accumulation of fat in certain areas of the body. 

Also, a person with HIV infection may develop stage 3 HIV if their immune system becomes too weak to fight off infection. The chances of survival for people with stage 3 HIV are lower, and some may die within months of diagnosis.

Other possible long-term effects of HIV include:

  • Cardiovascular complications
  • Frailty or accelerated aging
  • Cancer
  • Bone demineralisation
  • Inflammation-related complications
  • Cognitive impairment

Living with HIV

Showing support and care to people living with HIV will go a long way to help them live a healthy life

The thought of living with HIV sends shivers down people’s spines. However, HIV is not a death sentence. Several studies have shown that people with HIV can live normal, healthy lives and enjoy most of the things people who don't have HIV enjoy.

If you have been diagnosed with HIV, it is important that you take care of yourself. Aside from the care that comes from your healthcare team, your family, and your friends, you should also be an advocate for your own health.

Your doctor will most likely place you on highly active retroviral therapy (HAART). HAART is a treatment plan that typically comprises three or more antiretroviral drugs combined. 

Ensure you take your antiretroviral drugs and therapy seriously. This is because if you take them daily, the medications can suppress the virus to undetectable levels. This also eliminates the risk of sexual transmission while keeping you healthy.

Other things you can do to ensure you live a healthy life include:

  • Eat healthily
  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid smoking
  • Avoid excess alcohol or drug use
  • Manage stress
  • Get support by talking to friends, family, or other people living with HIV.

A positive HIV test result comes as a shock to many people. If that is you, you might want to take some time off to adjust to your new reality. 

Joining an HIV support or peer mentoring group within your locality may also help. All in all, make sure you check up with your healthcare team regularly so that they can monitor you for other health conditions and adjust your treatment if needed.