Your digestive system can slow down as you get older, with muscles in the digestive tract becoming weaker and less efficient in breaking down foods. Because new cells are not developing as quickly as they used to, tissues involved in the digestion process are more likely to be damaged and not work as well.
How does the digestive system work?
The digestive system is a complex network of various organs that work together to break down foods into nutrients that are absorbed by the gut. This network includes the:
- Pharynx (throat)
- Small intestine
- Large intestine (including colon and rectum), and
- Salivary glands
When you chew and swallow, a well-coordinated series of actions occur among these organs. Peristalsis is an involuntary action that propels and moves food through the digestive tract.
Between the lower end of the esophagus and the upper end of the stomach, a ring-shaped muscle called the sphincter opens and shuts the pathway between the esophagus and stomach. Food that enters the stomach is broken down by digestive fluids and enzymes.
The food then enters into the small intestine, where the food is further broken down by more digestive juices produced by the pancreas and liver. Once the food is completely broken down, it enters the large intestine where nutrients are absorbed and waste is concentrated to be excreted out through the anus.
How does aging affect the digestive system?
Aging has less of an impact on the function of the digestive system than it does on the operation of other organ systems. With age, many of your bodily systems slow down, and all of these changes can have a cumulative effect on the digestive system.
Heavy foods or large quantities cannot be handled because the organs are overused and less functional. This eventually slows down the digestion process. Aging can affect the organs of the digestive system in the following ways:
- Esophagus: The strength of esophageal contractions and tension in the upper esophageal sphincter weakens with age, leading to a condition called presbyesophagus.
- Stomach: The stomach lining's ability to combat damage diminishes with age, raising the risk of peptic ulcer disease, particularly in people who take aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The stomach cannot hold as much food as it used to (because of diminished flexibility), and the rate at which the stomach dumps food into the small intestine slows down.
- Small intestine: Because aging causes only slight changes in the anatomy of the small intestine, the flow of food and nutrient absorption remains relatively unchanged. Lactase levels, however, decline with age, leading to sensitivity to dairy products in many older people. Excessive bacterial growth also becomes increasingly frequent, causing pain, bloating, and weight loss. Bacterial overgrowth can cause problems absorbing certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron, and calcium.
- Rectum: The rectum enlarges with age and can lead to constipation.
In many cases, aging can cause other health conditions that affect digestion:
- Arthritis and hypertension: Many older individuals take medications to manage chronic arthritis and high blood pressure, which can have adverse effects on the digestive system.
- Arterial blockage: Blood flow to the intestines can be slowed by arterial blockages, a condition called intestinal ischemia that is common in older people.
- Use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Taking NSAIDs for minor aches and pains increases the risk of developing ulcers and other digestive disorders. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, senior women are more susceptible to developing gastritis, which is inflammation of the stomach often caused by long-term use of NSAIDs.
What digestive disorders are associated with aging?
- Dysphagia: Difficulty swallowing is common among the elderly. Reduced saliva production, decreased strength in the upper esophageal sphincter, nerve and muscle degeneration, and impaired swallowing coordination are some of the factors that lead to this condition.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease: When the upper section of the digestive tract malfunctions, stomach contents flow back into the esophagus, causing gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Symptoms include heartburn, acid or food regurgitation, persistent sore throat, chronic coughing, chest pain, and foul breath.
- Diverticular disease: Diverticulosis affects almost 50% of adults 60 and older and occurs when tiny pouches in the colon lining pop out at weak places in the intestinal wall. While many people experience no symptoms, others may experience gas, bloating, cramping, or constipation.
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Soenen S, Rayner CK, Jones KL, Horowitz M. The aging gastrointestinal tract. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2016 Jan;19(1):12-8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26560524/
Michigan Health. Aging and Digestive Health: 6 Factors to Watch For. https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/digestive-health/aging-and-digestive-health-6-factors-to-watch-for
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