Can You Develop Lactose Intolerance as You Age?

Last Editorial Review: 1/11/2018

Ask the experts

I would appreciate some information about lactose intolerance, from which I seem to be suffering. I am 76 years old, and have never had any digestive problems, until now.

Doctor's response

The sugar present in milk and milk products is called lactose. Our small intestine makes an enzyme that is needed to break down this sugar and is called lactase. A significant portion of the world population is either lacking or has insufficient amounts of this enzyme. This is particularly true amongst the Asians and Black Africans and Afro- Americans. As we age, the amount of this enzyme in our intestines is gradually depleted. As a result we can tolerate smaller amounts of milk or milk products (low-fat milk or non-fat milk contain the same amount of lactose as regular milk). The symptoms of lactase deficiency (therefore lactose intolerance) include gas, abdominal cramping and/or diarrhea when a person takes in more dairy products than his/her lactase can handle.

Treatment options include taking the enzyme lactase pills or drops (Lactaid, Lactrase, etc.) before and during a meal rich in lactose. Most groceries also carry low lactose milk which is another way to enjoy dairy. Yogurt is another good source of a low lactose dairy product, as long as the container indicates it has live culture. Anyone that is lactose intolerant should make it point to carefully check the ingredients of all packaged or pre-processed foods as they may contain unsuspected lactose. The three words to look for are milk, lactose, and whey.

Remember, optimal results depend on accurate diagnosis. Please consult your doctor to make sure that you are not suffering from other digestive disease that can mimic lactose intolerance.


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