Nelson Vergel is not what you think of when you say "AIDS over 50."
With hefty round muscles pushing out against a tight blue t-shirt and a lively demeanor, Vergel looks more like Mighty Mouse than a person resistant to nearly every HIV drug on the market. But Vergel is in the business of de-bunking myths about aging with HIV, and while his own HIV is a struggle, he's also the living example of his work.
Vergel presented some of the latest findings on HIV and aging at Center on Halsted May 31, during his free talk, "Promising Advances in HIV Cure and Healthy Aging Research." The event was sponsored by Test Positive Aware Network.
The Houston-based author and activist focused heavily on the scientific reasons why a cure to HIV/AIDS is both a distant dream and an impending reality. But while Vergel is following progress on possible cures, his own work focuses on informing other HIV-positive people on the changes HIV causes in the body and strategies for living well with the virus.
"We're getting older. What is the quality of life going to be?" Vergel asked an audience of about 30 people.
According to Vergel, medication is just one of four useful in battling HIV. He also includes stress reduction, exercise, and nutrition.
In three years, he said, there will be four once-a-day HIV pills on the market (there is currently just oneAtripla). Still, HIV drug production is slowing because it's less profitable than other drugs.
"We're moving into a new world," Vergel said. He expects that some HIV patients will be asked to go off their medications in time so that new possible cures can be tested.
That possible cure might include one found four years ago in an American living in Germany. The famous "Berlin Patient" may have been cured of his HIV when he received a bone marrow transplant from a donor whose genetic mutations made him resistant to HIV. Research on that method is ongoing, Vergel said, but it's also still very risky and not enough information is available to make it a viable option yet.
In the meantime, Vergel recommends nutrition and exercise. Because people living with HIV are at heightened risk of osteoporosis, HPV, and other illnesses, Vergel said it is especially important to remain vigilant about getting screened for other illnesses, especially HPV.
"We're not talking about bottoms or tops or women or men," Vergel said. "[HPV] is affecting everyone."
Medicine aside, exercise is the best medicine, said Vergel. "We [HIV-positive people] have an acceleration of the aging process by about 15 years," Vergel said. "Frailty in aging is most related to body strength."
Vergel suggests leg squats for preventing frailty. He also said a healthy combination of cardio and muscle resistance can slow the aging process.
New research has also shown merits of some vitamins in relieving some HIV symptoms. D vitamins can help maintain bone strength, while B vitamins can help relieve depression. Vergel warned, however, that patients talk to their doctors about vitamins as some can interact with HIV medications.
Vergel doesn't stop at health, however. His talk also included strategies for fighting changes in body fat and fat under the skin (also known as lipohypertrophy and lipoatrophy) because Vergel said, "it's not about getting older. It's about getting your healthy look back as you age."
Vergel thinks that a lot of doctors are reluctant to offer facial treatments to HIV patients who lose fat under facial skin because they see it as unnecessary, but he said that changes to body weight prevent some people from going on medication at all. However, a number of treatments exist for preventing weight changes while on HIV medication.
Finally, Vergel discussed testosterone treatments, which he has covered in his latest book Testosterone: A Man's Guide. Testosterone is often taken by HIV-positive patients to combat fatigue, lack of motivation, poor appetite, and muscle loss. Vergel warns that these should be taken with caution because they can fuel cancer.
Before making any decisions, he said, talk to your doctor. But do your own homework, too, he said because not every doctor will cover all the bases on HIV management.
"The thing is, we don't have standards," he said. "We don't have guidelines."
Information on Vergel's work as well as his complete slideshow presentation is available on his website: www.powerusa.org .