4 Habits That Hurt HIV Therapy

It has been well established that early diagnosis and treatment of HIV can increase life expectancy. In fact, research from the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MAC) has concluded that a person starting antiretroviral therapy (ART) at CD4 counts above 350 cells/µL could very well have a life expectancy equal to that of a non-infected individual. In the U.S., that translates to a life expectancy of roughly 76 years for men and 81 years for women.

While ART correlates to profound gains in life years, everyday habits and decisions we make can take back many—if not all—of those gains. What follows are the 4 habits that can reduce your lifespan by as much as 15 years—as well as the steps you can take to reverse those losses if you have HIV.


Poor Drug Adherence: Loss of 10 Years

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Treatment failure is often associated with poor drug adherence. Research from McGill University in Montreal has suggested that patients with persistent viral loads have a greater risk of treatment failure than those with low or complete sustained viral suppression. 

In 2015, the UK Collaborative HIV Cohort (UK CHIC) Study looked into the impact of viral suppression on a person’s life expectancy and concluded that a 35-year-old man unable to achieve viral suppression while on ART could expect to lose 10 years of life expectancy, even if the CD4 count were above 350 cells/µL.

Missing an occasional dose of your HIV medicine is only human. But doing so habitually will impact the efficacy of your drugs and the course of your disease.

While antiretroviral therapies are far simpler today than ever—with fewer pills, less severe side effects, and easier dosing schedules—as few as 53 percent of those on therapy are able to maintain the levels of adherence needed to suppress the virus. By failing to sustain an undetectable viral load, patients are more likely to experience treatment failure. As a result, valuable treatment options are lost, often forever.


Injecting Drug Use: Loss of 11 Years

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Injection drug use raises your risk of acquiring HIV and hepatitis C, and it can also increase the likelihood of death as a result of an AIDS-related infection, even among those able to achieve viral suppression.

A study from the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver examined life expectancy rates in 2,637 HIV-positive injecting drug users (IDUs) over the age of 20, collecting the time and causes of death of the 200 participants who had died over the course of a seven-year period. HIV-associated infections accounted for the majority of deaths overall, correlating to a loss of over 11 years of life, irrespective of treatment status.

A similar study from Tufts-New England Medical Center also looked at 656 IDUs over a five year period and concluded that the majority of deaths among HIV-positive users (66%) were attributed to HIV or an associated infection, while a little more than a third were related directly to substance abuse or violence.


Smoking: Loss of 12 Years

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Smoking, as an independent factor, is considered to have the far greatest impact on morbidity and death in people with HIV than any other HIV- or non-HIV-related disease. What makes this all the more distressing is the fact that people with HIV are twice as likely to smoke than non-infected individuals and tend to develop smoking-related illnesses 10 to 15 years earlier overall.

A 2013 study from Copenhagen University Hospital reported that smoking, in and of itself, reduces life expectancy by an average of 12 years in people with HIV—doubling the risk of acute heart disease, doubling the risk of death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and increasing the risk of lung cancer by a staggering 1400% when compared to the general population.

By contrast, smoking cessation among people with HIV is associated with a 65% reduction in heart disease risk after just three years as well as a 50% drop in lung cancer risk after only one year.


Delaying HIV Therapy: Loss of 15 Years

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Procrastination and avoidance are two habits a person with HIV cannot afford to indulge in, particularly when it comes to HIV therapy. By delaying treatment, you allow the virus to deplete your immune system, while submitting your body to inflammation that can lead to prematurely developing age-associated illnesses. 

Researchers from the UK CHIC Study concluded that a person who delays treatment until their CD4 count drops below 350 cells/µL can expect to live 15 years less than a person who starts treatment when CD4 counts are above 350 cells/µL. On the flip side, starting therapy at the time of diagnosis, irrespective of CD4 count, not only increases the likelihood of a normal life expectancy but reduces the risk of HIV- and non-HIV-associated diseases by 53%.

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By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.