Some seniors may not be comfortable discussing certain health issues with their doctors, especially concerning subjects like hearing loss, cardiovascular disease or depression.
But there’s another topic you also may be hesitant to discuss: age-related changes to your digestive symptoms.
Stomach problems can occur at any age, but every year 40% of older adults have one or more age-related digestive symptoms. As we age, so does our bowel system because of overuse, stretching and decreased muscle tone over time.
You may feel embarrassed talking about certain digestive health issues, but for proper care and diagnosis it’s important to openly discuss ongoing issues with your doctor sooner rather than later.
Here are some common age-related digestive issues you may encounter and suggestions for how to improve uncomfortable symptoms:
Constipation and Diarrhea
Constipation is a large complaint in seniors, and its symptoms include difficult or painful bowel movements, infrequent bowel movements and hard, dry stool. You shouldn’t ignore the urge to have a bowel movement, as holding it in for too long can cause constipation.
Seniors also may suffer from more frequent bouts of diarrhea, which can be related to an absorbency problem based on the type of food you consume.You may experience nausea, cramping or dizziness beforehand. This is your body’s way of letting you know there’s a problem, even if it’s temporary. Constipation and diarrhea may be symptoms of other issues, so it is important to check with your doctor if these symptoms don’t go away.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
GERD is a common upper gastrointestinal (GI) disorder in older adults and occurs when stomach acid flows back into your esophagus, which can cause heartburn and acid reflux. Some seniors may not produce stomach acid, so antacids will not get rid of symptoms. For proper treatment, your doctor will need to perform different tests to more accurately determine the cause. Over-the-counter medications can treat GERD, but see your doctor if you take them too frequently or if you experience some of the following symptoms:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Vomiting with or without blood
- Chest pain
- Chronic cough
- Excess mucus production
You also should talk to your doctor if you suffer from GERD without treatment and have a genetic predisposition to heart disease or any other heart risk factors.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is another common GI condition that involves a variety of symptoms, including bloating, pain or discomfort in your abdomen, and a change in your bowel habits.
Your doctor will perform a proper diagnosis using lab tests, physical exams, and imaging in order to exclude other conditions such as colitis, celiac disease, gallbladder diseases and colorectal cancer. Diseases and conditions that affect other parts of the body also can make your GI symptoms worse.
Adults 50 and older should get colorectal cancer screenings. As we age, there’s increased risk for developing polyps, or small growths in the colon. During a colonoscopy, your doctor will remove any visible polyps. Polyps typically have no symptoms, but can be non-cancerous, cancerous or eventually turn into cancer. You may need screenings before 50 if you have a family history of colon cancer or other risk factors.
How to improve your digestive health
Depending on your condition and its severity, your doctor could prescribe medication and create a treatment plan for your stomach and colon discomfort. However, there are changes that you can do on your own to improve your digestive health.
- Add more fiber to your diet if it does not cause gas or cramping
- Drink more water
- Eliminate high gas foods, such as carbonated beverages and certain fruits and vegetables
- Try acupuncture
- Take probiotics
- Exercise regularly to relieve stress
- Check with your doctor to see if your medications could be a contributing factor
Don’t let embarrassment prevent you from talking to your doctor and getting the treatment you need. The doctors at MetroHealth understand the health challenges that seniors face, and we’re here to help you along the way.