Caring for an Aging Gastrointestinal System
It’s no secret that your body changes as you age, from muscle strength and skin elasticity, to hair color and metabolic rate. Body systems like your immune system can also slow or weaken, and you may find yourself experiencing illness or ailments more frequently.
The same is true for your digestive system, where gastrointestinal problems can become a more frequent occurrence compared to younger years.
An increase in gastrointestinal issues with aging can be caused by a number of factors. Many medications have digestive side effects such as constipation, diarrhea, nausea or abdominal pain. A decrease in activity level can also slow your digestive system, causing constipation which can then lead to hemorrhoids. Dehydration can also make it difficult for food to move through your system, or you might fall victim to gravity or decreases in muscle support, where a sinking diaphragm or weakened lower esophageal sphincter results in an increase of acid reflux or heartburn symptoms.
Diet is also a big component of an aging gastrointestinal system. Many older adults find the convenience of pre-packaged meals appealing, without considering the consequences on their health. Without the energy or interest in preparing high-fiber or nutrient dense meals with fruits and vegetables, your body can experience vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Taste and smell can also change with age, leaving foods that you once enjoyed less desirable.
While some digestive symptoms or ailments are caused from hereditary or chronic conditions, there are many ways to manage or even decrease the amount of discomfort through lifestyle choices.
Just as we mentioned above that diet can be a contributing factor to distress, it can also be a leading factor in symptom management. Maintaining a healthy diet with high-fiber foods, reducing salt consumption and increasing water intake can have an impact on constipation, diarrhea, bloating and other discomfort. Avoiding foods that trigger heartburn, such as alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods can also decrease your likelihood of symptoms. Probiotics can also be helpful in managing the amounts of good bacteria in your gut.
If you are concerned that medications (over the counter and/or prescription) are causing unwanted side effects, we recommend speaking with your doctor or gastroenterologist to discuss your symptoms and possible alternative treatments or other medications that may be available to you.
Finally, activity level can be just as important as diet in not only gastrointestinal health, but your cardiovascular and overall health. Maintaining muscle mass and strength will help to prevent falls and injuries, and it will allow your body to support your organs and body systems for years to come. The CDC recommends two days of muscle strengthening exercises for older adults, and a minimum of 150 minutes of activity per week.