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Older gays and lesbians face more health disparities, study says

There's a health trend that researchers want the LGBT community to be aware of: Lesbian and gay adults over 50 are found to be in poorer health than heterosexuals, according to a University of Washington School of Social Work study.

The UW study is the first to use national, population-based data, to look at adult health by sexual orientation. UW Professor Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen was a lead researcher.

Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen: "Both gay men, lesbians, and bisexual men and women, compared to heterosexuals as a group, we did see higher rates of weakened immune system, lower back or neck pain, as well as higher rates of disability and mental distress across all those groups."

The research also broke down health disparities by group. Among the findings:

  • Compared with heterosexuals, gay and bisexual men were more likely to experience angina (chest pain), and more likely to have cancer. Gay and bisexual men were more likely to be current smokers and to engage in excessive drinking. Gay men were less likely to be obese than heterosexual men, though there was not a difference in physical activity between the two groups.
  • Bisexual adults reported feeling more isolated and experiencing greater stress.
  • Lesbian and bisexual women were more likely affected by stroke and heart attacks, asthma and sleep problems. Lesbians surveyed had elevated rates of excessive drinking. At the same time, lesbians had lower rates of diabetes than heterosexuals. While data on lesbians 18 and older shows they have lower rates of health insurance coverage, this study showed lesbians 50 and older had higher rates of health insurance and higher education levels than heterosexual women.
  • In a sign that LGB adults over 50 are accessing preventive care, more of them were tested for HIV than heterosexuals, had blood pressure screenings (among women) and flu shots (among men).

The study intentionally highlights multiple health threats for lesbians.
Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen: "Lesbian and bisexual women, there’s been very limited attention, it's a very invisible population, especially midlife and older adults. We have very few studies that have actually looked specifically at the kinds of chronic conditions for this particular population."

The data was based on a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of 33,000 adults.

While this study does not cover possible causes for the health disparities, Fredriksen-Goldsen is researching causes and prevention efforts in her longitudinal study Aging with Pride.