Many normal physiological processes can slow down with age, leading to various health challenges. The healthcare industry has long documented that the older we get, the more issues we will have with our digestive system.
It is true these problems can happen when we are younger, but, unfortunately, almost 50 percent of older adults have digestive symptoms that are age-related. Our physical health will undergo inevitable changes as we age, but poor diet, unbalanced gastrointestinal flora and fewer digestive enzymes can adversely impact our digestive and immune systems even more.
What problems can occur?
A very common digestive problem is constipation, which causes painful or infrequent bowel movements. Constipation is the result of the digestive system slowing down. Digestion works by means of muscular contractions that propel the food along the tract. Aging causes these muscular contractions to be weaker and slower so the food will spend more time in the intestines. Food in the intestines has water absorbed by the bowel wall, but the longer the food stays in the intestines, the more water passes through and leaves the bowel and enters the circulation. The absence of fluid causes the stool to be much drier, firmer and, therefore, more difficult to pass.
Medication use increases with age due to aches and pains, and other health issues. Some medication causes constipation, such as those prescribed for high blood pressure.
Patients who have undergone surgery – for example, a hip replacement surgery – find that their doctor will frequently prescribe narcotics to help ease the pain. This class of drug slows down the movement of the intestines, leading to constipation.
Even the most active of adults can find his activity level slowing down as he ages. Health problems and which often necessitate the need for surgery are more common among seniors, and can mean you are laid up in bed for weeks or even months. This lack of movement will cause bones and joints to be more brittle, so you might not be as excited or as able to go on long walks or participate in activities that promote physical movement, such as gardening.
The gut relies on movement to help with the passage of food. When a person is recovering from an injury and is unable to move, the gut is not as efficient at digestion. Once again, this leads to constipation. Using painkillers will further worsen the situation.
It is very important to your gut health to drink enough water. Doctors recommend that people should drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day, which is 64 ounces in total. The 64 ounces can be in the form of tea, fruit juice or other beverages.
Daily water requirements differ based on age, gender, activity level, health conditions, and multiple other factors. Men typically require more water than women, and extremely active adults are also recommended to drink more water. The important thing is to find the right balance of water intake for you so you can keep hydrated throughout the day. Hydration is important because it keeps your organs functioning properly, and brings along a slew of other benefits such as joint lubrication, healthy skin, regulated body temperature, and so much more. So, if you are concerned about your gut health, just remember that more water equals less constipation!
People who are bed bound might avoid drinking too much as they are concerned that doing so will have them using the bathroom frequently, and they may not be in a position to go without assistance. However, limiting fluid intake in such a situation is very unsafe, and should not be a reason for drinking less water. Even people with certain health conditions still require a healthy amount of water intake under the supervision of their doctor.
Another problem comes with certain medications. Diuretics are drugs that help to lower blood pressure in patients who suffer from elevated blood pressure or heart failure. These drugs cause the body to lose any excess fluids. This loss of fluids may lead to dehydration, especially if you are trying to drink less to avoid repeated bathroom visits.
A number of gut-related health issues are more likely to occur as we age. These include:
- The muscle along the digestive tract weakens with age. Pouches of weak gut lining appear in the bowel wall and can become inflamed and infected. This causes cramps, fever and vomiting. On occasion, diverticular bleeding may occur if any of the small blood vessels located within the wall of the pouch burst. Treatment is antibiotics, pain medication and a diet of liquids only until the situation resolves.
- Prolonged use of NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory) painkillers can cause stomach bleeding and ulcers. A peptic (stomach) ulcer is a sore in the lining of stomach, duodenum, or on rare occasion, the esophagus. Excessive NSAID drug usage can lead to other problems, such as bleeding from a broken blood vessel, perforation of the stomach or small intestine, a stomach blockage, and even peritonitis.
- These small lumps grow on the colon. They can be benign or cancerous. Sometimes the only way to find out if you have them is to have a screening colonoscopy. However, to lower risks of developing a polyp, research suggests implementing certain changes into your diet.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease, more commonly known as GERD, becomes more common as we age. Stomach acid leaves the stomach, travels into the esophagus and causes what we call heartburn. Risk factors for developing GERD are age, blood pressure medication and obesity. Certain diet choices can lessen the effects of GERD, but it can be painful and difficult to manage without some form of medication, such as an H2 blocker or proton pump inhibitor.
- Difficulty swallowing. Individuals with certain health conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and those who have suffered stroke, can find they have more difficulty swallowing. The normal aging process also slows our ability to swallow. A recent study performed by John Hopkins University estimated that a quarter of all adults will develop a swallowing related issue as they grow older.
How can I protect my digestive health?
As with everything in life, prevention is far better than cure. The best thing you can do to protect your digestive health is to try to maintain a healthy gut before any problems arise.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
A healthy gut requires a healthy diet. It is important you absorb the most amount of nutrients as you can from your food. There is a wide range of nutritional enzymes and probiotics available on the market that can help our digestion, even if our appetite is not as good as it used to be! Enzymes and probiotics are essential for overall digestive wellness and efficiency, especially as we age. Every time a meal is ingested, the body needs a supply of digestive enzymes to unlock the nutrients within the food. Probiotics improve digestion by nourishing intestinal cells and also have a beneficial effect on nutrient absorption. In addition to being diligent about taking enzyme and probiotic supplements, don’t forget to eat plenty of fiber-rich foods to help avoid constipation and diverticulitis.
Review Your Medication
Regular reviews with your doctor are the optimal way to ensure you are only taking the medication that you absolutely need. Ask your doctor about alternatives to your medication. There are fibrinolytic enzymes that can help people suffering from heart conditions and that do not have side effects like many prescription medications.
Go for Routine Health Screenings
Some conditions such as colon polyps might not show any symptoms at all. Therefore, the best way to stay healthy is to have yourself regularly checked for anything that may cause problems later on. A regular health screening with a healthcare professional will give you the answers and reassurance you need as well as any recommendations for a healthier gut and lifestyle.
Make sure there is always enough liquid in your gut to move the digestive process along. Drink at least two liters of liquid every day, and increase it in proportion to your activity levels. This amount might vary with medication use, gender, age, and a few other factors. You can ask your doctor or healthcare provider how much fluid will keep you hydrated and your organs functioning properly all day long. A hydrated digestive system is a healthy one!
Try to go for a walk or enjoy some form of activity every day, like weightlifting, cardio, and stretching. Doctors recommend doing such activities for at least half an hour daily to keep you supple and fit, as well as to aid the digestion process and avoid constipation. Some great exercise options for older adults are yoga, golf, and tennis, all of which work to both stretch and tone muscle groups while steadily increasing your heart rate.
Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
Heart conditions and high blood pressure increase in proportion to your weight. The fewer health issues you have, the less medication you will need, and the less side effects you’ll need to worry about their side effects. Maintaining a healthy diet with a healthy gut will help support your digestive system and your overall health. To find the right diet plan for your weight goals, always consult your doctor or a certified dietitian before making any dramatic changes to your daily eating regimen.