Most seniors develop digestion problems in one way or another.
As we grow older, our digestion slows down. This makes certain foods more difficult to digest.
Slower digestion could also mean issues like inflammation and other gastrointestinal issues.
So today, I’ll be discussing ways to avoid digestion problems in our aging parents.
As we age, our bodies grow more at risk for an assortment of health issues. Many bodily functions slow down, including our digestive systems.
Here’s what happens inside our digestive tract as we age.
For starters, our muscles aren’t as strong as they were.
Contractions in the esophagus and tension in the upper esophageal sphincter decrease. This may cause difficulty in swallowing for some. Others also develop diseases that interfere with esophageal contractions.
The stomach lining also decreases, increasing the risk of peptic ulcers. Elders who often use aspirin and other NSAIDs are more prone to contract this.
The stomach’s elasticity is also affected. This limits the food intake and also slows down the food’s passing towards the small intestines.
Lactase levels also decrease, making the elderly less tolerant of dairy products.
Excessive bacterial growth in the small intestines can also cause pain, bloating, and weight loss. This can also affect how the body absorbs nutrients such as Vitamin B12, iron, and calcium.
The liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are also affected by aging.
For one, the liver’s ability to metabolize substances slows down. Substances that don’t have much effect on younger folks can be toxic to the elderly and may cause more damage.
The gallbladder also slows down the production and flow of bile. This makes seniors more susceptible to gallstones forming in the gallbladder.
The walls of the large intestines can also go through atrophy with age. This can cause it to form pockets in its walls called diverticulosis.
Seniors also experience a decrease in their olfactory receptors. They can also experience regional taste deficits in the mouth.
This can have a huge effect on their food intake and appetite. It can lead to weight loss and malnutrition. Some can even experience anxiety because of the inability to experience food in its fullness.
A dry mouth is also common among the elderly.
Studies show that people over 70 years and older produce less saliva. This condition called xerostomia can be an indication of diseases like diabetes. It can also be caused by excessive amounts of medication.
Read more about how age affects the digestive system here.
Many factors cause digestive problems in the elderly. And most of it has been accumulated through one’s habits, culture, and lifestyle.
Here are the top common causes of digestion problems in seniors.
Our food choices are heavily influenced by different factors such as social status, accessibility, culture, and beliefs.
While the key driver for eating is hunger, there are so many factors that affect our food preferences and patterns.
Some cultures prefer food with a lot of hot chilis and spices. Others are heavy on carbs and fat.
Some have food aversions based on their personal and religious beliefs. And some people eat according to what’s readily available in their area.
Unfortunately, our bodies tend to respond according to our eating habits.
An unhealthy diet consisting of highly processed foods, and high carb meals can cause problems later on. Low fiber diets can also cause problems like vitamin deficiencies, illnesses, and digestive problems.
Diets consisting of spicy food can also trigger upper gastrointestinal symptoms and irritable bowel symptoms.
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A sedentary lifestyle causes more health issues according to WHO. It is said that approximately 2 million deaths every year are because of low physical activity.
Fewer movements mean you burn fewer calories. It also leads to constipation. Fewer movements and sitting all day can also cause abdominal compression.
It also slows down digestion and results in bowel movement problems.
Stress can also cause gastrointestinal problems like bloating, inflammation, and cramping.
Our stomach is also known as the second brain. And our gut has more neurons compared to the entire spinal cord, as published in Neuroscience.
The gut is also controlled in part by the central nervous system. It’s also connected to the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the esophagus to the rectum. And stress can have a huge impact on how our bodies carry out these processes.
Stress also activates our fight-or-flight response. These can trigger spasms, an increase in stomach acid production, and even affect how you eliminate waste.
Chronic illnesses like diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, and stroke often cause digestion problems.
GERD or acid reflux is also a common digestive issue that affects 20% of Americans according to NIDDK.
Some people also suffer from gluten sensitivity called Celiac Disease.
When people who have this eat gluten, the immune system goes on the attack. It damages the villi in the small intestines and can cause symptoms like anemia, bone loss, depression, and seizures.
Certain medications can also affect how our systems function. Some tend to relax the sphincter muscle located between the esophagus and stomach.
This can increase the chances of acid reflux and cause the stomach’s content to move back up.
Some medications like nitrates, NSAIDs, oral antibiotics, and calcium channel blockers can cause this reaction.
Various medications cause constipation. These usually affect the nerve and muscle activity in the colon which can slow down stool passage.
Pain medicine, iron tablets, antihypertensives, and antacids containing aluminum can have this effect.
Check out other medicines that can cause digestive issues.
So how do we as caregivers lessen the chances of digestion problems in the elderly?
Here are five ways we can help our seniors from getting digestive problems.
Dehydration is pretty common in seniors. And while drinking water and fluids are considered basic, it’s often forgotten.
So how do you help your aging parents keep hydrated?
The best way to do it is to offer them a drink frequently. If you could put it on schedule, that would be much better.
It’s also important for you to offer their preferred beverage. Go for fresh juice or sparkling water to make it more exciting.
Don’t pressure them into drinking so much. Small, frequent sips should be enough.
Read more about dehydration symptoms in the elderly here.
Nutrition is also important to make sure the gut is healthy. So choose the best foods that they can easily digest.
Offer foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids like tuna, salmon, and mackerel. Flaxseed, walnuts, and soybeans are also rich in Omega-3.
Choose high fiber carbs like sweet potato and brown rice. If giving bread, go for the whole wheat kind.
Go for soups and stews that make chewing and swallowing easier. If you could, use immersion blenders to make soups easier to digest.
Avoid foods that increase the risk of bloating, heartburn, and diarrhea. Foods like cheese and cream are high in saturated fat. Greasy food can also be difficult to digest.
Try not to use too many spices like hot peppers and chilis in your food. Instead, go for herbs and roots like ginger to add flavor to food.
Here are some of the best soup recipes you can do.
Probiotic supplements can help improve digestive health in our aging parents. It can help with managing chronic constipation and irritable bowel syndrome.
The good thing is probiotics are now accessible to more people. It comes in capsules, liquids, and powders that you can easily add to food. The same goes for fiber supplements.
Probiotics help reduce the frequency and duration of diarrhea. Some strains can also improve heart health.
Some can even reduce food and skin allergies, and relieve lactose intolerance.
A little caution before giving probiotics to your loved ones. Some can cause gas and bloating so make sure to have it approved by your doctor before use.
Discover more about probiotics here.
Make sure to check the combination of medicines your aging parents take.
Some over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs can lead to ulcers, constipation, and abdominal pain.
It’s also important to keep track of the medicine they take. You can offer alternative solutions for pain management like hot and cold compress instead of taking ibuprofen or aspirin.
Encourage your aging parents to stay active.
Get them to do at least 2 hours of physical activities each week.
Go for fun activities that they can enjoy, like a leisurely walk in the park. Engage them in yoga or tai chi.
Get them to play with your pets and have them spend time with your kids.
Anything that will keep them moving and have their heart pumping is good. Just make sure they’re enjoying it as well.
Digestion problems are inevitable, especially as our bodies age.
But with a proper diet, hydration, and an active lifestyle, digestion problems can be easily managed.
What’s your best tip to avoid digestion problems in your aging parents? Share them below.
That's all for today.
Take care, keep mom safe and have a great day!