The tummy aches you may have had as a child can evolve into a long list of digestive problems as you age. They’re annoying, but the good news is that things like acid reflux and constipation are irritations that you can treat. Often, simple lifestyle changes will do the trick.
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“Many older adults fixate on their gastrointestinal problems,” says gastroenterologist Maged Rizk, MD. “The gastrointestinal tract ages with the rest of us. I tell patients not to get too upset by it.”
Medicine, inactivity and even gravity all can take their toll and contribute to digestive troubles as you get older.
Here are the main culprits and the symptoms they cause:
- Multiple medications — These may cause a variety of gastrointestinal issues, including constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea and bleeding ulcers.
- Inactivity and dehydration — These issues are more common as you age and they can make constipation worse.
- Gravity — Over time the diaphragm can sink, causing decreased support where the esophagus joins the stomach, called a hiatal hernia. It typically causes heartburn and reflux. Medication often helps, but surgery is sometimes needed.
- A weakened sphincter muscle, sedentary lifestyle and chronic constipation — These all may contribute to cause hemorrhoids, which are swollen veins in the lower gastrointestinal tract. Hemorrhoids are common in older adults.
How diet plays a role
Your eating habits also likely change as you age. You may no longer have the interest or energy to prepare a well-balanced, high-fiber meal or to cut up fresh fruits and vegetables, especially if you eat your meals alone. Food may no longer be as pleasurable and tasty as it once was, either.
“When we are infants, we have the most taste buds, and they gradually reduce in number as we get older,” says Dr. Rizk.
An unbalanced diet can cause iron, B12 and other vitamin deficiencies, which in turn result in digestive problems.
Five steps to improve your digestion
Aging may spur digestive issues, but Dr. Rizk suggests five steps you can take to counteract those challenges.
1. Maintain a healthy diet.
- Add fiber to meals by including raw vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
- Reduce salt consumption.
- Avoid white foods such as bread, rice and potatoes.
- Drink water or other non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages throughout the day so your urine is almost clear.
- Eat a variety of protein like beans, fish and lean meat.
2. Avoid foods that trigger heartburn or reflux. For some, dairy causes the worst stomach problems. For others, it could be gluten. Since it’s different for everyone, try an elimination diet if you are uncertain about which foods cause issues for you. Talk to your doctor about getting tested for food allergies and food sensitivities to help find the culprit.
3. Consider a probiotic. Probiotic supplements, which contain helpful “good” bacteria, sometimes can aid people with chronic constipation. However, don’t take them for diarrhea unless it is after specific types of infections. Probiotics also come in the forms of certain yogurts (check the label), “live” (fresh) sauerkraut, kombucha and tempeh.
4. Check your medications. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs can cause digestive problems. Talk to your doctor about possible side effects and ask for a substitute if a medicine is causing nausea, diarrhea, constipation or other concerns.
5. Stay active. Exercise and physical activity offer lots of health benefits, including preventing constipation. Getting at least 150 minutes per week of physical activity can put you on the right path to a healthy lifestyle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting two days of muscle-strengthening exercises a week, too. Get out and get moving, your stomach will thank you.
“Aging may throw you some annoying curveballs, but following these tips will go a long way toward improving your digestion and limiting your tummy troubles as you age,” says Dr. Rizk.