The diagnosis rate among older Britons rose by an average annual rate of 3.6 percent over the 12 years to 2015, according to research in The Lancet. Picture: Pexels

London - Reckless sexual behaviour by divorcees is behind an increase in HIV cases among the over-50s, a major study suggests.

The diagnosis rate among older Britons rose by an average annual rate of 3.6 percent over the 12 years to 2015, according to research in The Lancet.

This compares to a steady decline of for percent a year among younger people. Experts said the rise of HIV in older people was driven by heterosexual sex and could be due to a surge in "silver splitters" – people over 50 who are newly single after leaving long-term relationships.

Iain Murtagh, chief executive of HIV and Aids support charity The Crescent, said: "People are coming out of long-term relationships and thinking that condoms are only for contraception. So if they’re menopausal or have had a vasectomy or hysterectomy in their previous relationship, then contraception doesn’t even cross their minds – and they are acquiring HIV and other STIs as a consequence.

"Many people aren’t aware HIV is still an issue, they think it has gone away, so they can be quite blase about protection."

Researchers from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control monitored HIV diagnoses in 31 European countries from January 2004 to December 2015.

Over the study period, 54 102 over-50s – equivalent to 2.6 in every 100 000 – were diagnosed with HIV. While lower than the rate of 11.4 cases per 100 000 younger people, diagnosis rates fell among this age group dropped while it spiked among older Europeans.

In 2004, around 3.1 new cases per 100 000 people over 50 were diagnosed in the UK, but this increased to 4.3 per 100 000 by the end of the study.Overall, the countries with the highest diagnosis rates in older people were Estonia, Latvia, Malta and Portugal.