"It's estimated that nearly 40% of older adults have one or more age-related digestive issue each year."
Today’s video is the first in Dr. Nancy Lin's series in digestive health as we get older.
Digestive problems can occur at any age, but the possibility of experiencing digestive health disorders does increase as we age. And constipation leads the list of complaints!
Today’s video is about what actually causes constipation.
- 01:23: Nearly 40% of older adults have one or more digestive issues
- 02:13: 3 or fewer bowel movements per week is too infrequent
- 02:49: Our digestive system does not run as smoothly as we age
- 03:30: Cause 1: your digestive system slows down
- 04:50: Cause 2: Problems with pelvic muscles
- 05:33: Cause 3: Older adults take a lot of medications
- 07:32: Cause 4: Inactivity
- 08:13: Cause 5: Dehydration
- 10:31: Cause 6: Diverticular disease
- 11:29: Cause 7: Conditions that effect hormones in your body
- 12:09: Cause 8: Low fiber diet
The Common Digestive Issue No One Talks About
Since constipation is a very common issue, we might as well talk about it! The main symptom of constipation is infrequent bowel movements. The official medical definition of "infrequent" is three or fewer bowel movements per week.
Another symptom of constipation can be difficult or painful bowel movements, which are usually hard and dry stools.
Assuming you don't have a rectum blockage that is preventing bowel movements, or something serious like colon cancer, there are a number of age-related factors that can cause constipation.
The main reason is that our digestive system simply does not run as smoothly as we get older. Starting in our 40s and 50s, bowel habits change, usually resulting in more constipation.
Here are some of the main reasons why:
Things slow down
Your digestive system moves food. After you eat, your body moves the food through your esophagus, stomach, and into your intestines. Your digestive system moves food throughout the lower body by a series of muscle contractions, which push the food along the digestive tract. As we age, this process slows down and this can cause food to move more slowly through your colon. When things slow down, more water gets absorbed out of the food, and that dryness causes constipation.
Problems with pelvic floor muscles
Issues with the muscles that are involved with bowel movements can cause chronic constipation. These problems are usually one of three things:
- Inability to relax pelvic floor muscles in order to allow for a bowel movement
- Pelvic muscles that don't coordinate relaxation and contraction correctly
- Weakened pelvic muscles. This can be caused by age, or multiple pregnancies
Older adults tend to take many medications, and many common medications can lead to constipation.
For example calcium channel blockers, used for high blood pressure medications can be a culprit. Also narcotic pain relievers, and opioids, which are often prescribed to older adults after knee or hip replacement surgeries, can have a direct effect on your bowels. They can significantly slow down the gut, causing major constipation. Chronic use of NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen or other pain relievers) can also effect your intestine and digestive system. This can also lead to bleeding ulcers. In fact, it's not aging alone that causes ulcers, but chronic NSAID use. This doesn't necessarily lead to constipation, but it can lead to a host of digestive issues.
Think about how much you move in a day. If you are sedentary more often than you are moving, this can lead to constipation. Movement, such as walking, moves and massages your internal organs, and gets the food moving through your digestive system.
If you do not drink enough fluids, this can lead directly to constipation. There are plenty of other great benefits to drinking fluids of course. It's extremely important for a variety of reasons, only one of which is that it helps with the saliva production that aids digestion. Staying hydrated helps prevent constipation at any age, but it happens to become more of an issue for older adults, who often take diuretics for blood pressure and other heart problems. Diuretics, including tea and coffee, lower blood pressure by causing you to lose excess fluid by urinating more often. A good way to know whether you are well hydrated, is to note the color of your urine. The darker it is, the less hydrated you are, with dark yellow indicating severe dehydration, and clear indicating proper hydration. You want it to be as clear as possible. It's easy to keep a bottle of water near you all the time, and make sure you're hydrating throughout the day.
Did you know that about half of people 60 or older have diverticulitis? This occurs when small pouches in the lining of your colon bulge out along weak spots in the intestinal wall. Constipation and other bowel issues can occur as a result. If the pockets become inflamed, which can be triggered by pain medication and other drugs, it becomes diverticulitis, which can make you very sick.
At any age, conditions that affect hormones in your body can lead to constipation. Hormones help balance fluids in your body. Common diseases and conditions that upset the balance of hormones and may lead to constipation include: diabetes, pregnancy, and under-active thyroid (or hypothyroidism).
Eating a diet too low in fiber
Processed foods are stripped of their natural fiber enzymes and eating too little fiber can also lead to constipation.
If you're not having a normal bowel movement or more daily, you may need to address the root of the issue. In general, everything you eat, you should also pass.
In our next video, we'll go through the steps to get rid of constipation and take care of your digestive system. We'll talk about laxatives and why you should avoid them, and what works better!