HEALTHY LIVING — Trust your gut feeling – the aging digestive tract

Published 12:04 am Thursday, September 28, 2023

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Like the rest of your body, your digestive track is getting older. That brings a whole new laundry list of issues.

Nearly 40 percent of older adults have one or more age-related digestive symptoms each year. Regular check ups with your doctor can head off some of these or at the least control them.

One of the most common things seen, certainly as people are getting into their 60s and 70s, may be a change in bowel habits, predominantly more constipation. There are a number of age-related factors that can cause constipation in older adults.

Your digestive system moves food through your body by a series of muscle contractions. Just like squeezing a toothpaste tube, these contractions push food along your digestive tract. As we age, this process sometimes slows down, and this can cause food to move more slowly through the colon.

When things slow down, more water gets absorbed from food waste, which can cause constipation.

And as we age, we start to have more health problems that require medications. Several common medications can cause constipation.

One example is calcium channel blockers, used for high blood pressure. Very good for blood pressure, very constipation causing. Narcotic pain relievers are another common culprit.

An older adult who has knee or hip replacement surgery will often be given narcotics for pain. Narcotics have effects directly on the bowel, they actually slow the gut.

People often become less active as they age and being inactive can make you constipated. Bed rest during an illness can cause real problems. If a person has joint-replacement surgery, for example, it takes time to recover and be fully active again.

Staying hydrated helps prevent constipation at any age. It can become more of an issue for older adults who take diuretics for high blood pressure or heart failure.

Diuretics lower blood pressure by causing you to lose excess fluid by urinating more often.

About half of people age 60 and older have diverticulosis. This occurs when small pouches in the lining of the colon bulge out along weak spots in the intestinal wall.

While many people don’t have any symptoms, gas, bloating, cramps, and constipation may occur.

Many older adults use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to control pain from arthritis and other types of chronic pain. Regular use of NSAIDs increases the risk for stomach bleeding and ulcers.

So, while aging alone doesn’t make your stomach more prone to ulcers, the chronic use of NSAIDs does raise your risk. More often than not, older patients don’t have pain from ulcers, but they can have painless gastrointestinal bleeding.

If you notice any type of stomach bleeding, such as vomiting blood, passing dark stools, or noticing blood when you wipe, tell your doctor right away.

The esophagus is the tube that connects our mouth to our stomach. Like the colon, the esophagus can also slow down with age, moving food through more slowly.

This can cause problems swallowing food or fluids. Dementia, stroke, and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease can also cause difficulty swallowing.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is the most common upper GI disorder in older adults, although people of all ages can get it. GERD occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms.

Heartburn is more common as you get older, but it’s often caused by factors not related to aging.

You know your body better than anyone, pay attention when it tells you something isn’t right. Have regular checkups to stay on top of any problems that might arise.

Jody Holton writes about health for Orange Newsmedia. She can be reached at