Aging & Digestive Health
As people age, their bodies lose the ability to repair damaged cells, and they are more likely to experience a variety of health problems. This includes digestive health too. Aging is a risk factor for several GI disorders, such as stomach sensitivity, acid reflux, constipation, diverticular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and colorectal cancer.
A Journey Through the Digestive System
A journey through the digestive system will help improve your understanding of how aging impacts digestive wellness. It’s always best to start at the beginning: the mouth. As the body ages, it produces less saliva, which means the typical first stage of digestion isn’t completed as it should be. As food moves into the esophagus, this limited saliva production can also lead to difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphasia.
Then, food travels to your stomach, where there is now less acid produced. This slows down the digestive process and can cause increased stomach sensitivity. Atrophic gastritis and Helicobacter pylori infection are associated with decreased stomach acid, and these disorders are seen more often in older patients than in their younger counterparts.
The next stop on the digestive journey is from the stomach into the intestines. Aging intestines can have difficulty with the motor control required to move food along, which could lead to some uncomfortable symptoms. According to research studies, chronic constipation is experienced by 30 to 40 percent of community-dwelling older adults and more than 50 percent of nursing home residents.
Aging also decreases the ability of the intestines to absorb nutrients. An elderly patient may need to supplement certain vitamins in order to ensure the absorption of the required amount. Check with your physician to see if you should be taking supplemental vitamins or minerals. Decreased biodiversity is often observed in the elderly populations, making probiotics and prebiotics helpful to preserve gut bacteria balance.
The End of the Digestive Journey
Now, it’s time to discuss the end of the digestive journey. The majority of colorectal cases are diagnosed at age 50 or older, so pay attention to any symptoms you may experience in the bathroom. Watch out for changes in bowel habits, narrowing of stools, or blood in your stool, as these could be indicators of colorectal cancer (CRC). Even if you don’t notice any unusual symptoms, be sure to schedule a life-saving colonoscopy by age 45 (or earlier if you have additional risk factors). And, yes, you read that right—45 is the new recommended screening age for CRC.
Combat Unwelcome Digestive Changes
Fortunately, there are steps to combat these unwelcome digestive changes. A diet that is high in dietary fiber is helpful for digestion and to ensure regular bowel movements. Plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts are nutrient-dense sources of fiber. The Mediterranean Diet, specifically, is a recommended dietary approach to encourage healthy aging. Be sure to drink plenty of water as well.
The bottom line is: You don’t have to accept digestive issues as you age. If you’re experiencing a GI problem that you think may be age-related, be proactive! Make an appointment with one of the talented board-certified gastroenterologists at San Antonio Gastroenterology Associates today!