There is a lot of good that comes with growing older. It might mean you get to slow things down a bit and enjoy grandchildren, for example. You are that much nearer to retirement, too, and the chance to relax. The downside to aging though is health concerns. The older you get, the more effort you have to put into staying healthy.
The body changes with age, and that includes your ability to swallow and process food. You can have problems with your gastrointestinal tract at any age, yet 40 percent of people over the age of 50 experience digestive issues. The key to keeping your stomach from becoming a victim of age is prevention.
One of the most significant problems women over 50 face is the weakening of muscles due to decreasing hormones. Studies show that we begin to lose muscle strength around the age of 30 and it continues with every year. During your adult lifetime, you lose between 10 to 15 percent of muscle strength.
Muscles affect more than just movement. Your digestive tract uses muscles to force food down the esophagus into the stomach, for instance. There is also muscle built into the walls of the intestinal tract to keep food and waste material moving. The weakening that comes with aging causes a slowing in the intestinal tract.
The other major component to consider is chronic age-related health problems. For one thing, the liver grows smaller with age so it works less efficiently producing substances necessary for healthy digestion.
To prevent a problem, you first need to know what to look for. Here are some common digestive disorders older women face.
GERD is a severe form of heartburn that you can get at any age, but the complications from it get worse as you get older. Untreated GERD can lead to esophageal damage and stomach ulcers.
Older women tend to develop bad habits that can increase their risk of developing severe heartburn, too, like eating late or enjoying fried foods. Medications we take to control age-related chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or joint pain can increase stomach acid, as well. Hormonal changes in an older woman create conditions that increase their risk of GERD, too, like weight gain.
Constipation is one of the biggest complaints from older women, primarily as over the age of 65. A 2015 study published in Canadian Family Physician found that 26 percent of women experience constipation once they hit their 60s. The number goes up the older you get, too.
Think of your large intestine as a stocking. When you push the side of your hose with your thumb, it stretches the fabric and creates a pouch. When we are talking about your large intestine, that pouch is called a diverticulum or a weak spot in the wall. Unfortunately, these pouches tend to be a consequence of aging.
When food and waste get caught in a pouch, you can develop a potentially serious condition — diverticulitis, which is inflammation and infection of the bowel wall. Age is a significant risk factor for diverticulitis, and it can lead to life-threatening complications like a bowel blockage.
Colon cancer is the third leading cause of death in both women and men. The chances of developing it increase after the age of 50 and there are almost 100,000 new cases each year. One in 24 women, that’s 4.15 percent, develop this deadly form of cancer.
Prevention is always the best medicine, so here’s what you can do to protect your digestive tract at any age:
Talk to your doctor about any medications you take – This includes over the counter products like pain relievers. NSAIDs such as naproxen (brand name Aleve) can increase stomach acid.
Don’t Slow Down – Exercise is critical for women after age 50 who want to look and feel young. Make sure you exercise at least 30 minutes a day for five days a week to keep those inner muscles working right and decrease your risk of constipation and colon cancer.
You can get your fiber from food or as a supplement. The smartest approach, though, is to keep track of how much fiber you get with each meal and make up the difference with a supplement. For example, if you eat five small meals each day and your goal is 35 grams of fiber, you need seven grams per meal. If your lunch only had three grams of fiber, take the remaining five grams as a supplement. Foods high in fiber include fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Drink lots of fluids – You should drink enough water each day to ensure you don’t feel thirsty. For some, that means eight glasses but others might need more or less.
Maintain a healthy weight – Weight management is the best way to prevent most chronic age-related problems including constipation.
Get screened – Your doctor can walk you through the recommended screenings for women over the age of 50, including a colonoscopy. Colon cancer starts out as polyps, and a colonoscopy can remove them before that happens.
There is no reason your stomach has to age gracefully. If you find you feel bloated, gassy or constipated, don’t write it off as something that comes with age. Take steps to feel better.