Age-related changes in the digestive system begin in the mouth and can affect virtually every aspect of the digestive system. Taste buds become less sensitive, so food isn’t as appetizing as it once was. A slice of pizza is a challenge, not a treat, when you have lost teeth, your gums are diseased, and your salivary glands aren’t producing enough saliva. Swallowing can be difficult, and ingested food moves slowly through the alimentary canal because of reduced strength and tone of muscular tissue. Neurosensory feedback is also dampened, slowing the transmission of messages that stimulate the release of enzymes and hormones.
Pathologies that affect the digestive organs—such as hiatal hernia, gastritis, and peptic ulcer disease—can occur at greater frequencies as you age. Problems in the small intestine may include duodenal ulcers, maldigestion, and malabsorption. Problems in the large intestine include hemorrhoids, diverticular disease, and constipation. Conditions that affect the function of accessory organs—and their abilities to deliver pancreatic enzymes and bile to the small intestine—include jaundice, acute pancreatitis, cirrhosis, and gallstones.
A hiatal hernia occurs when the hiatus becomes weakened and the junction of the esophagus and the upper portion of the stomach protrudes from the abdominal cavity into the thoracic cavity by way of the hiatus. This condition is most common in obese people over the age of 50. While the condition is initially treated with surgery it is likely to reoccur. To prevent reoccurrence the condition is treated with medication and individuals are encouraged to eat small less frequent meals and elevate the head and chest while sleeping.
Each year, approximately 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and another 49,000 die from it, making it one of the most deadly malignancies. People with a family history of colorectal cancer are at increased risk. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and a diet high in animal fat and protein also increase the risk. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, studies support the conclusion that dietary fiber and calcium do not reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer may be signaled by constipation or diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and rectal bleeding. Bleeding from the rectum may be either obvious or occult (hidden in feces). Since most colon cancers arise from benign mucosal growths called polyps, cancer prevention is focused on identifying these polyps. The colonoscopy is both diagnostic and therapeutic. Colonoscopy not only allows identification of precancerous polyps, the procedure also enables them to be removed before they become malignant. Screening for fecal occult blood tests and colonoscopy is recommended for those over 50 years of age.
Diverticula are tiny herniations in the wall of the intestines, producing pouches that protrude outward through the muscular layer. Fecal matter can collect in the diverticula. This causes inflammation and possible infection. The infection is called diverticulitis. Diverticulitis is common in individuals over 40 in developed countries. This is believed to be a result of diets too low in fiber.
Constipation refers to infrequent or difficult evacuation of feces from the bowel. It is often associated with large quantities of dry, hard faces in the descending colon and rectum. This slows the movement of digestive residue. The longer the fecal matter remains in the colon the more water is removed from the matter. This exacerbates the problem.
Fecal incontinence, or loss of control of bowels, is a problem for many older people. The major concern for people suffering from fecal incontinence is hygiene. Additionally, fecal incontinence can be embarrassing and has been known to cause depression.
Hemorrhoids are swollen or ruptured blood vessels in the lower bowel. Most older people suffer from this condition, and while they may not cause any discomfort hemorrhoids often cause pain, itching, and bleeding. Constipation is the most common cause of hemorrhoids.