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Navigating Digestive Health Through Ageing

There are steps we can take to maintain good digestive health and minimise any discomfort or challenges that may arise.

Photo of an elderly couple by RDNE Stock Project/Pexels.

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 5 – In the intricate tapestry of ageing, the impact on our digestive system is a chapter that often goes unexplored.

This is especially the case when research shows that ageing individuals can have new medical and digestive issues that they have never had before. Some studies have found that nearly 40 per cent of older adults have one or more age-related digestive symptoms each year.

Furthermore, those with existing or long-standing digestive conditions can experience worsening symptoms as they age.

Dr Lim Sim Yee, consultant in gastroenterology and hepatology and Dr Soon Yuen, consultant general and upper gastrointestinal surgeon at Sunway Medical Centre (SMC), help uncover the nuances of digestive health as it intertwines with the ageing process as well as how to manage it.

Navigating Ageing And Changes in Digestive Health

As we age, our bodies undergo several natural changes affecting our digestive system.

While these changes are inevitable, there are steps we can take to maintain good digestive health and minimise any discomfort or challenges that may arise.

The digestive system, also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, breaks down food, absorbs nutrients, and eliminates waste.

As we age, several factors contribute to changes in the digestive system, including decreased production of digestive enzymes, slower muscle contractions, changes in gut bacteria, and side effects from medications.

Dr Lim and Dr Soon underscore the importance of proactive measures, encouraging individuals to pay attention to digestive issues, and not dismiss them as inevitable components of growing older as they may show underlying health issues, such as colon cancer.

“One of the most important changes an ageing person can make to not only make a difference to their digestive system but also on their overall health is increasing protein intake to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight and incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables, fibre, and lean meat to your diet,” said Dr Soon.

“This is because as we age, we lose muscle. Between the ages of 40 and 80, we lose 30 to 50 per cent of muscle mass due to ageing.

“Most men will lose about 30 per cent of their muscle mass during their lifetime and lose even more if inactive. This muscle loss can also affect women the same way.”

Dr Soon also shared that his father’s routine of walking 3,500 steps or 1.6 kilometres daily at age 93 is a testament to the benefits of consistent exercise in the ageing population.

Common Digestive Problems In Older Adults

Due to these age-related changes, older adults are more likely to experience digestive problems such as:

  • Constipation: Difficulty passing stool is a common complaint among older adults.
  • Heartburn: Acid reflux, also known as heartburn, can cause a burning sensation in the chest.
  • Diverticulosis: Small pouches form in the colon’s wall, sometimes inflamed or infected.
  • Lactose intolerance: The ability to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, decreases with age, which is especially common among Asians.

Regarding digestive health, both doctors provided insights into the challenges older individuals face that can also affect their digestive health.

Chronic conditions such as diabetes can significantly affect the digestive system, altering gut movements.

This is because high blood sugar, which is commonly caused by diabetes, can lead to gastroparesis, a condition that affects how you digest your food.

“Prescribed medications that are often a crucial aspect of managing health in old age can have side effects that can cause constipation and other digestive issues.

“This is why it’s important to bring along your medications if you have digestive issues when you see your doctor, as it can help determine if your symptoms are related to the medication or could be something worse,” said Dr Lim.

This collaborative effort between patients and healthcare providers becomes crucial in deciphering the potential interplay between various medications, ensuring a tailored and effective treatment plan.

Dr Soon also highlights the increased susceptibility of gastric ulcers and gastritis in older individuals due to the waning of protective mechanisms with age.

One of the causes is Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), the only bacterium classified as a Class I (definite) carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Some studies have shown that the prevalence of H. pylori in older populations is significantly higher compared to younger people, resulting in a higher incidence of gastric cancer, peptic ulcer disease and other H. pylori-associated conditions in this population.vi

Significant Role Geriatricians Play In Health Care In Ageing Populations

Dr Lim and Dr Soon elaborate on the significance of geriatricians in managing complex health scenarios.

They highlight that geriatricians are experts in balancing medication and navigating the intricacies of ageing-related diseases.

“They are excellent coordinators of care and very good at complex care. They can speak to the patient, prescribe medications, and provide comprehensive treatment to treat them properly with minimal side effects,” said Dr Soon.

Dr Soon also illustrated the intricate relationship between cardiovascular complications and dementia, underlining the need for a holistic approach.

“Even cardiovascular complications can lead to dementia, and it’s very interrelated. The multidisciplinary collaboration between geriatricians and specialists, such as cardiologists, is key in addressing these interwoven health challenges.”

Both doctors stress the importance of proactive healthcare, encouraging individuals to address concerns promptly.

Dr Lim emphasised the significance of early medical attention, cautioning against dismissing symptoms.

“If you have ongoing or worsening symptoms, seek medical attention immediately, as we can try and catch it before it is too late. Many digestive issues can be treated easily if addressed promptly,” said Dr Lim.

“Enjoy life and your relationships. If you have a problem, seek help early. Try not to be your own doctor,” Dr Soon advised, cautioning against the pitfalls of self-diagnosis through online platforms as that can prolong your visit and worsen the problem, especially for the ageing population who might dismiss their symptoms.

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