Aging and Digestive Health: 6 Factors to Watch For
As you get older, new stomach symptoms — as well as more serious digestive system disorders — can crop up.
Your digestive system works hard every day to digest the food you consume. After years of this, you may start to see some changes in your digestive health.
That’s because aging, though it does not affect the digestive system the same way it does other organs in the body, is a risk factor for some issues, including colon cancer, acid reflux, stomach sensitivity to medications and a decreased absorption of some vitamins.
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This is partially because as we grow older, our stomachs produce less acid. Without acid’s protection, hard-on-the-stomach medications, such as ibuprofen, may become harder to bear.
And just as the muscles throughout your body might tire more easily than they did in your 20s and 30s, the muscles in your gastrointestinal tract, including the esophagus and bowel, can slow down. This often leads to increased symptoms, such as acid reflux or constipation, respectively, over age 65.
Here’s more on what to watch for as you age.
Our digestive system moves food through our bodies through a series of muscle contractions. As we age, this process can slow down.
When that happens, more water from the food is absorbed into the body, which can lead to constipation. Staying hydrated is very important to help prevent constipation. Inactivity can also contribute to constipation, so remember to get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity four days a week.
The medicines we take to help with one physical problem can contribute to another.
Medications taken for high blood pressure or muscle and joint pain can lead to constipation,— so remember your water and activity levels. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and COX-2 inhibitors, can increase your risk of stomach bleeding and ulcers. If you take these medications, take note of the color of your stool, and tell your doctor if it’s dark or shows sign of blood.
It is recommended that most people have their first colonoscopy at age 50. This is because the risk of developing polyps in your colon increases at that age. Noncancerous polyps can become cancerous, so it’s important to have a colonoscopy to identify and remove any polyps before cancer develops.
Diverticulosis is quite common in those over age 60. It occurs when the small pouches that line the colon bulge out in weak spots along the intestinal wall. Some people may have no symptoms when this happens, while others can experience gas, bloating, cramps or constipation. Diverticulosis typically does not require treatment, but when the pocket becomes inflamed, you can develop stomach pain, cramping, fever, chills and vomiting. This can be treated with pain relievers, antibiotics and diet changes.
Although a person of any age can develop gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), it is quite common among older adults.
Someone with GERD has stomach acid that backs up into their esophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms. Left untreated, that acid can change the lining of your esophagus and lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. A small number of those with Barrett’s esophagus can develop esophageal cancer. There are many treatment options for GERD and Barrett’s esophagus, so discuss any symptoms you have with your doctor.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
Older adults who are obese or who have high triglycerides or diabetes are at a higher risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition where fat accumulates in the liver. It’s the most common type of liver disease in the country and can cause scarring of the liver tissue. Over time, patients can develop liver cancer or failure.
Although there are often no symptoms, the condition can be diagnosed with a blood test of liver enzymes and an ultrasound. There are treatments to help prevent and even reverse liver damage, so it’s important to seek and follow treatment from your doctor.