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Tips for Improving Digestion in Elderly

Like every other body system, the digestive system is affected by age-related changes. In fact, many of the health issues that become evident as we age can be linked to poor digestive health. Knowing what changes to expect and how to manage risk factors is important.

The digestive system begins in the mouth and ends in the anus. From the time food or fluids are consumed digestion begins. As a person ages, changes in the digestive system may result in poor digestion. This means that you will not see a toilet for three days.

Understanding age-related changes and how to avoid significant changes can help decrease the chance of developing poor issues related to poor digestion.

Caring for Your Digestive Tract

Despite the many changes that occur in the digestive tract with age, there are some things that decrease the risk of digestive health issues.

Hydration

The process of digestion involves food moving through the digestive tract through a series of muscle contractions. As mentioned above, muscles lose elasticity with age. This can result in the slowing of peristalsis.

When peristalsis is slowed, food remains in the colon (large intestine) longer, allowing more water to be absorbed from the waste. This can result in constipation.

Staying well hydrated will help soften stool and make it easier for the waste to pass through the digestive tract. Healthy fluid intake can be accomplished by drinking plenty of water, teas. 

It’s important to note that the sensation of thirst decreases with age.  Therefore, simply not feeling thirsty is not a good indication of good hydration. It is best to set reminders to drink fluids if you do not feel thirsty often.

For reference, urine should be a pale straw color. If your urine is dark, or if you are not urinating often, this could be a sign that you are not well hydrated and you may need to increase your fluid intake. 

Oral Care

Utilizing good oral health practices is crucial to digestive health. With age, like other bones, teeth may become brittle and chip or become loose. Brushing and flossing daily, having regular dental check-ups is crucial.

If chewing becomes an issue because of dental reasons, it may be necessary to opt for softer foods. Eating stewed vegetables and fruits and drinking supplemental shakes will help maintain nutrition without causing greater discomfort related to dental issues. 

Take the Time to Chew Food Properly 

Digestion begins in the mouth when saliva is mixed with food. Saliva contains an enzyme that is responsible for the breakdown of food so that it can be used by the body. With age, the production of saliva is decreased.

This means it is especially important to stay well hydrated and to chew food completely. Swallowing food that has not been chewed properly can cause digestive distress, such as bloating, gas or nausea. Additionally, when food is not broken down well, the absorption of important nutrients may be hindered.

Meal Size 

Decreased elasticity of the stomach wall means that the stomach of older adults may not be able to accommodate as much food as it could at a younger age. The rate at which the stomach contents are emptied into the small intestine also slows.

Eating smaller meals more frequently will help ensure that the digestive system is not overly filled and will help to avoid digestive pain or discomfort because of being too full.

Dietary Choices 

Consuming a diet that is high in fiber and rich in whole grains, vegetables and fruits can improve digestive health. Fiber helps to draw water out of the stomach and into the stool, which keeps food moving through the digestive tract and decreases the risk of constipation.

Also, a high fiber diet can help prevent or treat some digestive conditions, such as diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, and irritable bowel syndrome. 

Exercise

There are several benefits of exercise. In addition to improved mood and decreased risk of heart disease, regular exercise also promotes the normal contractions of the bowel. This means the risk of constipation, which is common in the elderly, is decreased. Simple, easy exercises, such as walking and stretching can help reduce the risk of digestive related problems. 

Reduce Stress

A high-stress lifestyle can cause your digestive tract to work harder. It can lead to diarrhea or constipation. It is important to find stress-reducing activities and engage frequently.

Be Kind to Your Gut 

When people think of bacteria, they don’t always consider it a good thing.  However, the human body needs healthy bacteria to help support gut health. The level of good bacteria in your body can be affected by the types of food you eat.

Consuming foods such as oats, bananas, onions, blueberries, and garlic will help promote a bacteria-healthy gut environment. Eating foods that promote good bacteria creates an environment for healthy digestion and the absorption of nutrients that are key to good digestive health. 

Maintain a Healthy Weight 

Excess weight increases abdominal pressure, which can increase the risk of the back-flow of stomach acid.  When the acid backs up into the esophagus, a condition known as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) can occur. Obesity has been identified as a leading cause of GERD, as increased or excess weight increases abdominal pressure, making stomach acid back-flow occur.

Maintaining a healthy weight can not only help decrease the risk of developing GERD, but it helps facilitate better mobility which is essential for good digestive health. 

Know-How Your Medications Affect Digestion 

Many people are surprised to know that a major contributor to digestive health issues in older adults is a prescription medication. For example, calcium channel blockers prescribed for heart conditions and narcotic pain medications can cause constipation.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) pain relievers and aspirin can cause stomach upset and may lead to ulcers. Glucophage (Metformin), an anti-diabetes drug can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

If you are taking any medications, prescription or over-the-counter, and you are experiencing any digestive health symptoms, consult with your doctor to discuss whether any of your medications could be the cause of your digestive symptoms.

The Aging Digestive Tract

Each part of the digestive system is at risk of being affected by age-related changes. Some of the most common changes include:

Mouth: One of the changes to the mouth with age is the loss of teeth. This is caused by a combination of age-related bone loss in the jaw, and gum disease. Both result in a loosening of teeth. While lost teeth can be replaced with dentures these are not equivalent to natural teeth. Dentures can make it difficult to chew comfortably.

This can result in a change in eating habits and long term deficits in nutrition. Additionally, decreased saliva production, increased mucus production and a diminished sense of taste also occur.

Esophagus:  Some elderly people experience difficulty swallowing and/or heartburn, which makes eating unpleasant and, sometimes, painful. 

Stomach:  The mucous membrane of the stomach thins with age causing lowered levels of mucus and digestive enzymes. This results in decreased protein digestion.

Large Intestine: The walls of the large intestines atrophy (become weaker) with age. The thinning of the walls results in out pockets from the wall, a condition known as diverticulosis.

Pancreas:  The number of secretory cells in the pancreas decreases with age. This results in a decrease in the level of fat digestion.

As a person ages, changes in the digestive tract can lead to bothersome issues. The muscles of the digestive tract, like other muscles in the body, begin to lose their elasticity (ability to stretch). They come stiffer, weaker and less efficient.

The tissues of the tract may also experience damage because new cells are not being formed as quickly as they did previously. Below are some digestive tract problems that can occur as people age:

  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea or Constipation
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Gas and Stomach Pain
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Diverticulitis
  • Fecal incontinence (an inability to control the passage of bowel waste)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Conclusion

While age-related changes cannot be avoided, they do not have to be detrimental to one’s health and normal body functioning. Understanding what changes can be expected as a person ages and taking steps to promote health and well-being can help prevent or delay unpleasant changes. 

Simple measures, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can help improve digestion. Regular visits with a primary care provider should be included in your wellness plan. 

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