Managing Your Digestive Health As You Age

As people age, their digestive system undergoes changes that can lead to various problems. These issues include constipation, diarrhea, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), diverticular disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). About 15% of the United States population is over 65, so health issues relating to aging are becoming more prevalent. Let’s break down some of the key factors contributing specifically to these digestive problems and how to manage them.

Get to Know Your Digestive System

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Reviewing the current research, it is still unclear whether digestive problems in older adults are due to the normal aging process or a disease process.

Let’s first overview the digestive system:

The digestive system includes the GI tract and accessory organs, but in this post we are focusing on the oral cavity, esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestine in discussing the aging process. The purpose of the digestive system is to digest food, absorb nutrients, secrete enzymes, and eliminate waste products. Several factors can throw things off balance.

Digestion Begins in the Mouth

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Seniors often encounter oral health issues such as dry mouth and taste alterations, impacting the initial stages of digestion. Factors like medication side effects and nutrient deficiencies exacerbate these challenges, underscoring the importance of comprehensive oral care in older individuals.

The Stomach’s Role in Digestion

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Alterations in gastric microbiota (bacteria), mucosal protection, and motility characterize aging stomachs. Lifestyle factors and health conditions, such as weight gain and smoking, can hasten these changes, leading to conditions like GERD.

Intestinal Insights

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While the small intestine remains relatively unchanged as we age, conditions like Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) pose significant concerns for older adults. Moreover, diminished motility and alterations in the gut microbiome contribute to issues like chronic constipation, warranting targeted interventions.

Managing Common Digestive Disorders

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In navigating digestive health, dietary and lifestyle modifications are key. Polypharmacy (taking multiple medications), sedentary behavior, and inadequate hydration exacerbate digestive woes in seniors. Fostering mindful eating habits and promoting physical activity are integral to alleviating gastrointestinal disturbances.

Let’s look at what you can do.

Focus on Hydration

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Age-related changes can diminish thirst sensation, which in turn leads to urinary concentration, predisposing older adults to dehydration. Hydration stands as a cornerstone of digestive health for all ages, impacting various physiological functions.

Some older adults may experience a decline in cognitive function, which causes them to forget to drink fluids during the day. If they experience urinary incontinence, that might lead them to self-restrict fluids. Poorly controlled diabetes can impact hydration as well. 

Encouraging adequate fluid intake is paramount in preserving optimal well-being.

Fiber Fortification

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Dietary fiber plays a pivotal role in maintaining digestive regularity. Many seniors complain of constipation, and fiber through proper diet choices can help. However, challenges such as impaired chewing ability and social isolation can hinder fiber intake among seniors. A Registered Dietitian (RD) can make suggestions about food or supplement choices that are right for you. Not all types of fiber are equal and you do want to increase the right kind for your symptoms, which a RD can explain.

GERD Management

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GERD poses substantial challenges for older adults, often necessitating multifaceted interventions. Lifestyle modifications, alongside pharmacological interventions, can both alleviate as well as avert complications associated with this condition. Again, the best way to determine your best path is with a Registered Dietitian.

Diverticulitis Defense

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The prevalence of diverticular disease underscores the importance of dietary strategies in disease prevention. Embracing fiber-rich diets, maintaining a healthy body weight and regular physical activity can help prevent diverticulitis flare-ups. Your doctor and RD can give you more suggestions, specific to your needs and capabilities.

IBS Intervention

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While predominantly diagnosed in younger populations, IBS can manifest in older adults, albeit with complexities in diagnosis and management. Adopting a low FODMAP diet is as a frontline approach in alleviating symptoms and enhancing digestive comfort in seniors grappling with IBS. It is important not to self-diagnose. IBS should be diagnosed by a medical doctor, and the low FODMAP diet is meant to undertaken with a RD.

The Takeaway

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By understanding the factors contributing to digestive issues in older adults and implementing dietary and lifestyle changes, it’s possible to manage these problems effectively and improve overall quality of life.

Some of these changes are simpler than others, and some do require the aid of a medical doctor and RD, but your health and well-being are worth it! If you are suffering with digestive issues, please do speak with your medical professionals.

This article is adapted from an original post written by Jody Garlick RDN LDN for FODMAP Everyday®.

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Our sister publication FODMAP Everyday® is at the forefront of IBS education, particularly in relation to the low FODMAP diet. We have brought versions of many of the articles here for you:

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  • Dede Wilson

    Dédé Wilson is a journalist with over 17 cookbooks to her name and is the co-founder and managing partner of the digital media partnership Shift Works Partners LLC, currently publishing through two online media brands, FODMAP Everyday® and The Queen Zone.

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