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Aging and Digestion

    • As you grow older, are you more likely to suffer from indigestion, constipation and other ailments of the digestive system?

      Unfortunately, the answer is yes, says Sacramento gastroenterologist Roger Mendis, M.D., of Sutter Medical Foundation.Opens new window “Aging doesn’t necessarily mean you will start to have GI problems, but it definitely increases the odds that you might. Everything changes as our body ages, and some of those changes do impact your GI tract.”

      Here are some of the reasons that problems with digestion might begin after the age of 60, even in healthy adults:

      1. Sluggish Metabolism
        A slower metabolism can trigger constipation. The work of the colon involves the coordinated contraction of smooth muscle in the gut. Activity level, diet, water intake and metabolism all play a role in digestive health. As we age, our metabolism may slow, as does our activity level, resulting in harder, drier stools that are more difficult to pass. Drinking more water, modest activity (walking) and incorporating fiber into the diet may be beneficial in maintaining healthy bowel habits. (See more on constipation.)
      2. Susceptibility to Diverticulosis
        Almost half of older adults will have this condition, in which small pouches develop in the lining of the colon. Most adults remain symptom free, but these diverticula pouches can also cause constipation and discomfort. If the pouches become inflamed (diverticulitis), they can cause pain, fever and abdominal tenderness. Bleeding may occur in a minority of individuals.
      3. Seemingly Unrelated Conditions
        Health problems like diabetes or thyroid conditions can impact your metabolism and your digestive system, causing constipation or diarrhea. Diabetes may cause slowing of the stomach emptying or “gastroparesis.”
      4. Medications
        As we age, we are more likely to take medications for other conditions, such as heart disease or arthritis. Calcium channel blockers, often prescribed for heart conditions, can cause constipation. Pain relievers, particularly narcotic pain relievers, are well known to cause constipation. And aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) pain relievers, sold over-the-counter, can upset the stomach and cause GI bleeding.
      5. Being Overweight
        As your metabolism slows, it takes more effort to keep the pounds off. Increased weight can lead to increased acid reflux and heart burn, as abdominal fat pushes the stomach into the chest.
      6. Inactivity
        Painful arthritis can cause us to become more sedentary as we age, and that too can slow digestion. Your digestive system works best when you are active and mobile. If aging means you spend more time sitting and less time moving, your GI tract may become sluggish.
      7. Increased Sensitivity
        Aging may impact your “iron stomach.” While Dr. Mendis says it hard to pinpoint exactly why, older adults commonly find they can no longer tolerate the spicy foods, alcohol or coffee in the quantities they used to love. Complaints of being more “gassy,” more apt to have heartburn or dyspepsia are common, but generally not serious issues.

      Help for Digestive Problems Associated with Aging

      So what can you do about the inevitable movement of time, keeping your digestion moving along as smoothly as possible? Dr. Mendis offers his patients a number of recommendations, valuable at any age (and also beneficial for warding off other serious diseases like heart disease or cancer):
      1. Eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet, rich in fruits and vegetables. Substitute brown for white – for rice, bread and pasta. (See the Mediterranean Diet Guide for easy suggestions and meal ideas.)
      2. Stay hydrated. Drink adequate water, and add more water if you drink coffee and alcohol, which can be dehydrating. “Drink twice as much water as the alcohol or coffee you consume,” Mendis recommends, in addition to your daily water consumption.
      3. Exercise. Walking, bike riding, gardening or swimming are great. Triathlons are not needed, but some regular exercise is always a necessity. (Need inspiration? See eight ways to overcome your fitness obstacles.)
      4. Practice moderation. “Coffee, wine, chocolate and the other occasional extravagances make life wonderful,” notes Dr. Mendis. “Just don’t overindulge.”
      5. Pay attention to the medications you take. If your doctor prescribes a new medication, ask the doctor or your pharmacist what impact it may have on your digestive system. Don’t take additional medications unless there is a clear, current need. Evaluate your medication list with your doctor on a regular basis.
      6. Know the warning signs of serious digestive problems: Progressive abdominal pain, sudden weight loss, and unexplained bleeding always deserve an evaluation by a doctor.

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