Common Digestive Problems in Seniors: A Comprehensive Guide

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The digestive system is a vital collection of organs. It is responsible for breaking down food into components that the body uses. The culmination of years of effects from your diet, lifestyle, diseases, and medications will reflect this. 

Getting older has its perks and disadvantages. On the plus side, people have more time to relax and enjoy their lives. They’ve earned it after working hard in their youth. On the negative side, many health challenges pop up. Individuals experience an increase in digestive health disorders.

Digestive health issues become more common as we age. Nearly 60% of seniors in the U.S. are affected by some form of gastrointestinal disorder, according to the National Institute on Aging. Understanding the most prevalent digestive problems can help seniors and caregivers manage symptoms. They can also prevent complications and know when to seek medical help. This guide covers the common digestive concerns in the senior population.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

GERD affects around 20% of adults in the U.S., with seniors being especially prone. This makes finding a primary care doctor more imperative. GERD is a chronic digestive disease that occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back up into the esophagus. In effect, it causes damage and pain over time. 

The most common causes include the following: 

  • Hiatal hernias
  • Pregnancy
  • Certain medications
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Obesity

High-fat foods can also trigger GERD by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter muscle. As a result, seniors experience unpleasant symptoms like these: 

  • Heartburn
  • Regurgitation
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • The sensation of a lump in the throat

Left untreated, GERD can progress to serious complications. For example, they might get esophageal strictures and Barrett’s esophagus. It will heighten the seniors’ risk of esophageal cancer. But lifestyle measures can effectively control symptoms without reliance on medications. For instance:

  • Losing excess weight
  • Avoiding trigger food
  • Elevating the head in bed
  • Managing stress

All of these efforts significantly alleviate GERD. Over-the-counter antacids also provide short-term symptom relief.

The foods one should avoid if they have gastroesophageal reflux disease are:

  • Fatty and fried foods linger longer in the stomach. This makes it more likely that stomach acid leaks back up into the esophagus. It causes uncomfortable GERD symptoms.
  • Spicy foods, citrus, tomato sauces, and vinegar may intensify heartburn.
  • Chocolate, caffeine, onions, peppermint, carbonated drinks, and alcohol All of these are common heartburn triggers.

If you eat any of these foods regularly, try removing them to see if doing so reduces your reflux. Depending on the results, you can try adding them back gradually.

Meanwhile, these foods are known to be less reflux-triggering so turn to them to reduce the symptoms:

  • Non-citrus fruits include bananas, melons, apples, and pears, among others. Meanwhile, you should avoid citrus fruits as much as possible.
  • Vegetables are best eaten raw when you have GERD. Try to do so. While tomato sauce may bother you, a fresh tomato may not.
  • Choose lean meats. Lean meats that are grilled, poached, broiled, or baked are your best options. Try using fresh herbs rather than spices to make them flavorful.
  • Oatmeal, whole-grain bread, rice, and couscous These are all good sources of healthy complex carbs and fiber.
  • Try unsaturated fats from plants and fish. Replace saturated fats and trans fats with oils such as olive, sesame, canola, sunflower, and safflower. Eat avocados, nuts and seeds, soybeans, and fatty fish such as salmon and trout.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS is another prevalent digestive disorder, affecting up to 20% of Americans, particularly seniors. It involves colon muscle contractions leading to abdominal cramping, constipation, diarrhea, or both. IBS disrupts daily functioning but doesn’t cause permanent damage.

Certain foods, medicines, and emotional stress commonly trigger IBS flare-ups. Symptoms vary but often include bloating, mucus in the stool, urgency, and abdominal tenderness. Keeping a symptom journal helps identify personal triggers. 

To alleviate symptoms, dietary tweaks like following a low-FODMAP diet show promise. FODMAP refers to fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. They are sugars that draw fluid into the intestines and ferment, causing gas and bloating. 

A registered dietician can provide guidance on minimizing high-FODMAP foods. Probiotics and stress management techniques also help control IBS. If basic lifestyle measures fail, doctors may prescribe medications for symptom relief.

Constipation: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

Nearly 27% of seniors over 60 deal with chronic constipation, usually from medications and low fiber intake. Underlying medical conditions like diabetes and neurological disorders can also slow bowel movements. Constipation becomes more common with age-related bodily changes, reduced mobility, and ignoring urges.

In most cases, adopting simple lifestyle measures can promote regularity. Seniors should maintain proper hydration and engage in daily exercise. Establishing a consistent bathroom routine is also essential. Lastly, consulting a doctor about adjusting medications that may cause constipation is advisable. 

Over-the-counter stool softeners, laxatives, and enemas should be used cautiously under medical guidance.

While occasional constipation is normal, persistence beyond 3 weeks warrants medical help. Prolonged constipation can result in hemorrhoids or fecal impaction. It is a hardened and lodged mass of stool requiring emergency disimpaction.

Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis

By age 60, approximately 40% of people develop diverticulosis, or small pouches along the colon lining. Around 10–25% of them, mostly seniors, endure bouts of diverticulitis. It inflames and infects the pouches, causing fever, nausea, abdominal pain, chills, bloating, and bowel changes.

Diagnoses often involve CT scans, MRIs, bloodwork, and a gastrointestinal specialist exam. For mild cases, antibiotics and a low-fiber diet for flares provide symptom relief. But recurrent or serious cases may need surgery to remove infected pouches and repair perforations. Advancements in minimally invasive approaches help shorten surgery recovery times.

Although age itself doesn’t cause diverticulosis, factors such as diet and genetics might. To reduce risks, doctors advise a high-fiber diet with whole grains, fruits, and veggies. Fiber helps move waste through the colon while promoting a healthy microbiome for optimal gut health in seniors.

The Bottom Line

Digestive issues plague over half of seniors, disrupting nutrition and quality of life. Being aware of common disorders empowers seniors and caregivers to seek timely treatment. Implementing preventive lifestyle measures can also minimize gastrointestinal issues. Simple tweaks like adopting a fiber-rich diet, managing chronic illnesses, and maintaining a healthy weight can promote optimal digestive health in the golden years.

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