What is the digestive system?
Most people associate their digestive system with their stomach, but that's only partially true.
Your digestive system refers to a group of organs that work together to break down the food you consume, allow your body to absorb important nutrients, and eliminate waste. Broadly speaking, this encompasses your digestive tract – which extends from your mouth, all the way through your stomach, small and large intestine, before ending at the anus – as well as other organs such as the liver, gallbladder and pancreas, which secrete essential enzymes and hormones.
When all these components of a healthy digestive system work well, it's easy to take it for granted. However, as you grow older, you may find that your appetite is no longer what it used to be, or you may not be able to enjoy food as much as you previously could. In fact, indulging in spicy foods, large servings or late-night meals may now cause you to feel physical discomfort instead.
These could be signs of poor digestive health, symptoms of something more serious, or simply signs of ageing.
How ageing changes your digestive system
While digestive problems can occur at any age, there are certain gastrointestinal conditions that become increasingly common as you grow older.
The weakening of the muscular contractions along your digestive tract is a common occurrence that slows down the process of digestion, causing food to move slower along your digestive tract. Other factors could include poor circulation from blockage in the arteries, the use of certain medications that affect the digestive tract, or a variety of other reasons. These factors could lead to a series of digestive issues.
Digestive problems caused by ageing
From constipation to indigestion, here are some common digestive health disorders that are commonly associated with ageing:
Have you ever felt like you ate too much, so much so that your entire meal feels 'stuck' inside?
This sensation is often thought to be caused when large chunks of food are swallowed, making it difficult for the enzymes in your intestines to break down. This could become a more serious problem as we age, due to reduced production of the stomach's digestive acids. In addition, factors such as weakened muscles in the digestive tract and reduced blood supply to the stomach and intestines, means it also takes longer for the stomach to empty out its contents. All these can contribute to the feeling of indigestion. Medication, anxiety, stress as well as depression could also be possible triggers.
Indigestion may also be a symptom of an underlying condition such as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) and gall bladder disease. It causes discomfort such as burning in the stomach, bloating, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
If you're experiencing frequent indigestion, it's important to seek medical help to identify the cause as it could be a sign of a more serious health issue.
Constipation is a change in bowel movement that causes difficulty in passing stools. There are several factors that could cause constipation as you age, including a weakened digestive tract, inactivity, or as a side effect of certain medications. It could also be a possible symptom of an underlying medical condition.
In the long run, constipation not only causes pain and a loss of appetite, it could also lead to straining during bowel movements, which increases your risk for developing haemorrhoids.
Constipation can be prevented by consuming a healthy diet, increasing your intake of water, and getting regular physical activity. If your medication might be the cause, be sure to highlight this to your doctor.
Gastrointestinal diseases when ageing
The best person to identify a change in your digestive health is you. Listen to your body and be alert for any unusual changes. It is best for you to seek a diagnosis as some gastrointestinal conditions may require medical attention.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), better known as acid reflux, is a common upper gastrointestinal tract (GI) disorder among older adults.
GERD is a medical condition involving the oesophagus and your stomach. It occurs when stomach acid flows back up into the oesophagus and hence, causing heartburn and other symptoms such as nausea and difficulty breathing.
Symptoms of GERD could sometimes be mistaken for a heart attack. As older people also face an increased risk for heart attacks, it is important to see an expert who will be able to diagnose the cause of heartburn and to rule out the possibility of a life-threatening condition such as heart disease.
Also known as diverticulosis, this medical condition occurs when small pouches develop along the intestinal wall. For some, this medical condition doesn't produce any symptoms. Others may experience symptoms such as gas, bloating, cramps and constipation.
About half of individuals above the age of 60 are diagnosed with diverticular disease. Depending on the severity of the condition, medical treatment may be required especially if the condition progresses and causes an inflammation.
Peptic ulcers are ulcers that develop in the lining of the stomach and duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. They usually formed as a result of inflammation in your gut caused by the bacteria H. Pylori, which can be spread orally or through faeces. Besides that, certain medications and smoking could also cause of this medical condition.
The most common symptom of this painful condition is described as burning abdominal pain. Other signs to look out for include bloody or dark stools, chest pain and changes in appetite.
Peptic ulcers should not be taken lightly as they could cause internal bleeding and scarring of stomach tissue. If you experience any of the symptoms associated with this condition, you should see a gastroenterologist who will be able to help you.
An endoscopy or x-ray may be suggested to assist in making an accurate diagnosis.
How to protect your digestive health as you age
As your body ages, it's important to continue taking charge of your health while adapting to its needs. Your digestive system may change as you age but it does not have to mean compromising your quality of life. Be pro-active in maintaining your digestive health with these tips:
Manage your medications
Older people are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions that require medication, and some of these may affect your digestive health. You should speak to your doctor to discuss if any of these medications might be causing your gastrointestinal symptoms.
Exercise and stay active
Physical activity has been shown to help keep your digestive healthy by relieving symptoms like constipation and reducing your risk for colon cancer. You should aim to get at least 30 minutes of exercise, 5 times a week. This can also help with overall health and keep age-related conditions at bay.
Maintain a healthy diet
A balanced and nutritional diet helps to keep you in good health. As you get older, you may need to consume more fibre to prevent constipation and ease the symptoms of diverticulosis. Aim to eat more whole foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans, and drink more water. As part of a healthy diet, you should also manage your portion sizes and reduce your intake of fat, salt and sugar.
Regular health check-ups
You should also get regular check-ups and go for the recommended health screenings. This can help to detect potential problems early, allowing prompt intervention which usually results in more positive treatment outcomes.
These steps to keep your digestive system healthy will also help you to manage your weight and reduce your risk for conditions like heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. In turn, this may also reduce your need for medications.
If you are experiencing discomfort associated with your digestive system, a gastroenterologist, who is a medical expert is this field, will be able to help you take charge of your digestive health.