A look at digestive health problems
Not again, you think, as the familiar hot, burning sensation begins in your chest and creeps up your throat. You used to experience heartburn only occasionally, but now it seems to occur more frequently. Is this just a sign you’re getting older, or is there something else going on? Heartburn and other digestive complaints — such as stomach pain, indigestion, constipation and diarrhea — are among the most common reasons people see their doctors or seek medication. Many people think that these problems are normal byproducts of digestion or an aging digestive system. In fact, age-related digestive changes are usually subtle and only a mild nuisance. In some older adults, constipation and heartburn become more troublesome, but factors besides aging may contribute to those, as well. Persistent or worsening digestive distress, on the other hand, is often your body’s way of telling you that something’s wrong. With early diagnosis, most digestive problems can be successfully treated or managed. The effects of aging on your digestive system It’s normal for the digestive process to slow a little as you age. For some, dental problems don’t let them chew as well as they used to, or they may not produce as much saliva, making the initial steps of digestion a little harder. The stomach can’t hold as much food because it’s less elastic. Digested food moves more slowly through your intestines. The amount of surface area within your intestines diminishes slightly, and the small intestine may be less able to absorb certain nutrients. With age, your intestines become more susceptible to overgrowth of certain bacteria, which can impair absorption of nutrients and cause bloating and gas. Loss of nerve cells along the intestinal pathway may contribute to slower movement of food and waste, and therefore to constipation. The flow of secretions from your stomach, liver, pancreas and small intestine may decrease. The liver becomes smaller, and some of its waste-clearing and metabolic functions decline. As a result, it may take longer to rid the body of medications and other substances. The effects of drugs may last longer in older adults. While this might seem like a lot of changes, for most adults, the impact on digestion is generally mild.
Digestive problems that can arise Signs and symptoms of gastric discomfort — such as heartburn, stomach cramps or indigestion — usually diminish after a few hours. But for some, digestive distress persists and becomes a constant concern. The problem may have many possible causes, including infection, inflammation or abnormal blockage in the digestive tract. Although nonprescription medications often help relieve acute signs and symptoms, they may not be the complete answer. If you’re regularly bothered by indigestion, nausea or cramps, see your doctor. Knowing the root cause may help reduce anxiety and allow you and your doctor to work together to manage and possibly even cure the condition. Early action may also prevent a serious condition from becoming life-threatening.