As we age, our digestive system undergoes a number of different changes. Some of these changes are just a natural part of growing old. Some are the result of years of lifestyle and diet decisions becoming more apparent in our health. And some are side effects from one of the numerous medications we may take.
But how can you tell the difference between natural changes to the digestive system and potentially dangerous issues that require treatment? Knowing a couple of things about common bowel problems in the elderly can help you know what to expect, and better prepare you to identify the warning signs of more serious digestive complications.
Senior Digestive Issues
As we grow old, our circulation system may work less efficiently. It’s not uncommon for older adults to have low blood pressure, constricted blood vessels, or to be at risk of blood clots. All of these factors can contribute to the development of bowel problems if it means blood is having a harder time reaching the gut. For example, ischemic bowel disease in the elderly is one possible consequence of a reduction in blood flowing to the bowels.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is among the most common GI disorders among older adults. That’s because a small ring of muscle helps separate the esophagus and the stomach. And it’s not uncommon for that muscle to weaken with age, leading to symptoms like heartburn, difficulty swallowing, regurgitation, and chest pain. Likewise, loss of bowel control in elderly adults can be due to damage of similar muscles around the anus.
For many seniors, digestive issues are related to the side effects of medications. Painkillers are among the most common culprits because they actually can slow down the digestive system. When over the counter painkillers are used regularly, like ibuprofen and similar nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), older adults face greater risk of stomach ulcers and GI bleeding. You should always alert a doctor about the presence of blood in stools.
Bowel Obstruction in Elderly Patients
Seniors are also at greater risk of suffering from an obstruction in their bowels. This is usually the result of a bowel impaction, when hardened stool becomes stuck in the rectum or colon. It’s important to be aware of this problem because bowel impaction in elderly people is more common if other bowel problems are present. For example, impaction can occur after unresolved constipation. Left untreated, a bowel obstruction can be life threatening.
Someone suffering from an obstructed bowel might experience nausea, vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea, fever, dizziness, confusion, irregular heartbeat, or trouble breathing. If you see these types of symptoms, seek immediate medical assistance.
Preparing for Bowel Changes in the Elderly
Many bowel movement problems in elderly adults are at least partially caused by inactivity. Older people tend to be less active, but inactivity has a significant impact on our metabolism. Staying active can help the colon process waste, which can help prevent constipation and a lack of bowel movement in elderly adults. Choosing nutritious foods and getting an adequate amount of sleep has also been shown to help the digestive system to function more efficiently and keep elderly bowel movements more regular.
In summary, follow the time honored recommendation of diet and exercise. The CDC recommends seniors should get about 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise during most days of the week. Older adults should also intermix both muscle and bone strengthening exercises. Though sometimes digestive changes are often just a natural part of aging, taking these small steps can go a long way towards living a happier and healthier life.