Elderly Constipation and Other Stomach Issues: 4 Common GI Problems in Seniors
Aging brings many new health problems with it, and your digestive tract is no exception. Both the aging process itself, and medical problems common among the elderly, can impair a person’s ability to swallow, digest, and pass food effectively. Constipation is especially common, but there are other issues present in older patients as well.
Constipation in Older Adults
Among seniors over sixty, it’s actually very common to struggle with frequent constipation. While it’s sometimes secondary to something else, like an illness or infection, constipation can also be primary. That means it’s its own thing, rather than a symptom of some other condition.
It’s thought that decreased motility in the digestive system is a contributing factor. There isn’t a cure for constipation per se, but there are things that the patient can do to reduce it. The American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends the following things:
- Make sure the constipation isn’t caused by a medication. Some medications, notably opioid analgesics, can cause constipation.
- Try to use the bathroom thirty minutes after a meal. This can help you take advantage of something called the gastrocolic reflex. When you eat a meal, part of your body’s response to a full stomach is to increase contractions in your large intestines and colon, pushing out their contents to make room for the next meal’s worth of food. If you’re having trouble going to the bathroom, trying to do so fifteen to thirty minutes after a meal can help make it easier.
- Eat more fiber. A dietary intake of at least 25-30 grams of fiber is essential for healthy digestion and bowel movements. You can get your fiber from foods like leafy greans and whole grain cereals, or from fiber supplements.
- Get more exercise. Getting at least thirty minutes a day of moderate exercise can help improve your digestive regularity.
You’ll notice that laxatives aren’t really on the list as a primary remedy for constipation. While laxative medications are effective for relieving occasional constipation, they don’t work as well if the constipation is chronic. Overusing laxatives can impair your ability to produce a bowel movement without them, so it’s better to use them as a last resort.
Minor dietary adjustments can also help. We’ve mentioned getting more fiber, but here are a few specific foods that can help:
- Whole grain products like bran
- Nuts and seeds
- Leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, and cabbage
There are also a few types of food that might actually make your constipation worse, which can include:
- Refined grains like white rice, white bread, and most pastas
- Bananas that aren’t fully ripe yet
- Tea (Camelia sinensis)
Dysphagia (Trouble Swallowing)
Another issue many seniors face is dysphagia. This gets more likely the older someone gets, and can stem from a number of underlying medical issues. Changes associated with aging itself, like reduced saliva production and reduced strength in your upper esophagus, can make swallowing difficult. Dysphagia also occurs in Parkinson’s disease, and in people who have suffered a stroke.
Chewing food thoroughly, eating slowly, and sitting upright while eating can help. Many people with trouble swallowing also do better with softer foods.
Functional dyspepsia is a chronic disorder affecting the upper digestive tract — the stomach and esophagus. Peristalsis — the muscle contraction that moves food through your esophagus — is impaired, resulting in symptoms like bloating, upper abdominal pain, nausea, heartburn, and indigestion.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
GERD is a chronic condition where the upper digestive tract isn’t functioning properly, sending the contents of the stomach back up through the esophagus. This causes chronic heartburn, nausea, sore throats, and chest pain.
GERD, as well as functional dyspepsia, can be treated with dietary changes and medications. Many people with these conditions have “trigger foods,” which make their symptoms flare up. These vary from person to person, but can include spicy foods, fatty foods, alcoholic beverages, and acidic caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, and cola. Eliminating these trigger foods can help.
There are also two types of medications that can help. Some neutralize the acid in the stomach and esophagus. This includes antacids like Tums and Rolaids, as well as Pepto-Bismol. The second type of medication inhibits the actual secretion of the acids by proton pumps in the stomach lining. This class of drugs includes Zantac, Prilosec, and other common medications, many of which are available over the counter.
Senior Care Center can help you find the best home that can meet your loved one’s dietary needs and answer any questions on how to find the right home. To read more on senior health, visit Senior Care Center’s blog.