There was a time when late night pizza or a diner run didn’t destroy you — let alone overindulging at dinner.
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But over the years, does it seem like that burning sensation keeps moving up your chest (oh no, heartburn again?) Why is that becoming a thing?
It’s common for adults to have occasional heartburn. But, as you get older, it can become a more frequent irritant.
“There is not any clear age where things take a nosedive, but as we age, heartburn becomes more of a problem,” says gastroenterologist Scott Gabbard, MD.
Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart. It may occur after you eat, when you bend over or exercise, or when you are lying down.
Doctors diagnose heartburn that occurs more than twice a week as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. And it can eventually lead to more serious health problems, Dr. Gabbard says.
“Studies show that one-fourth of people over age 75 take medication for heartburn,” he says.
What makes your heartburn worsen over time?
There are four common reasons for increased heartburn.
- Aging muscles
Your muscles weaken as you grow older. And that includes one critical to fending off heartburn — the lower esophageal sphincter.
Food passes down your throat and through your esophagus to your stomach. This sphincter controls the opening between the esophagus and the stomach. It typically remains tightly closed except when you swallow food. But as you age, it can weaken and stop functioning properly.
- Weight gain
Many older adults carry extra weight that can weaken the sphincter further. And, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the risk and severity of GERD is higher for those who are overweight, Dr. Gabbard says.
As you age, your health problems increase and so does your need for medication.
“Some blood pressure and antidepressant medications can cause heartburn. Also opiates,” says Dr. Gabbard. “Being overweight and taking certain medications may be the major driving factors for heartburn.”
- Hiatal hernia
With age often comes a hiatal hernia, where the upper part of the stomach pushes up into the chest cavity.
“Sixty percent of people over 60 have a hiatal hernia,” Dr. Gabbard says. “Most are small and do not cause problems, but the larger ones put you at risk for heartburn.”
What can you do about your heartburn?
A good rule of thumb is to seek medical attention if you have more than two episodes of heartburn a week — especially if you notice difficulty swallowing, weight loss or anemia, Dr. Gabbard says.
Your doctor may help you lose weight or adjust your medications.
A change in blood pressure medicine may help reduce your heartburn symptoms, for instance. Or your doctor may suggest a proton pump inhibitor such as Prilosec OTC® or Nexium® to help control your GERD.
If your heartburn is worse at night, changing your sleeping position may help. Dr. Gabbard recommends using a body pillow or sleep-positioning device that helps keep you on your left side with your head elevated.
Finally, he has a warning for men over 50 who have chronic heartburn.
If at least two of these conditions apply — you are Caucasian, have abdominal obesity, are a former or current smoker — you may have a higher risk for Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition that can lead to esophageal cancer.
Even if you are feeling fine, you should see your doctor. He or she may recommend a one-time scope examination to make sure there are no signs of the condition.
There is no pill to strengthen and restore your sphincter muscle to its younger days. But you can work with your doctor to reduce that burning sensation as you age.