Gastrointestinal Changes of Aging

The organs and structures of the gastrointestinal system undergo numerous changes as an individual grows older. At birth, the infant’s mouth supports sucking and swallowing liquid nourishment. With the eruption of teeth and the elongation of the head, developmental changes that occur in early childhood, the oral cavity shifts to support chewing and swallowing solid foods. By three years of age most children in the United States are eating fully solid foods, their gastrointestinal systems capable of digesting nearly any food an adult’s body can accommodate.

The gastrointestinal system remains fairly stable until about the fourth decade of life, at which time changes in muscle tone, vasculature (blood vessel function and blood supply), and body composition begin to affect its structures and functions. Some of these changes are physiologic and others relate to lifestyle; combined they result in increased gastrointestinal problems such as gastroesophageal reflux disorder (gerd)gallbladder disease, diabetes (altered functioning of the pancreas), and peptic ulcer disease.

Changes such as weight gain or obesity may affect digestive functions as well, particularly with abdominal adiposity, a pattern of body fat distribution in which excess body fat accumulates in the abdomen. This accumulation can compress the intestines, slowing intestinal motility. In the fifth decade of life and beyond, there is increased risk for stomach cancerliver cancerpancreatic cancer, and colorectal cancer.

Changes in vasculature, which often result from other health circumstances such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and atherosclerosis, affect gastrointestinal motility and absorption. A person age 50 absorbs about a third less calcium than a person age 25. Absorption of other vital nutrients slows as well; many older adults benefit from nutritional supplementS.

In the seventh decade of life and beyond, the salivary glands and digestive glands slow production of their respective secretions. Reduced saliva makes chewing and swallowing more difficult; reduced gastric juices further impede digestion and absorption. These changes increase the potential for gastrointestinal disturbances such as diarrhea and constipation.

Measures to Preserve Gastrointestinal Health

Measures to preserve gastrointestinal health can mitigate many of the age-related changes that occur in the gastrointestinal system. These include

  • Eating a high-fiber, low-fat diet
  • Drinking six to eight ounces of water every hour or two during waking hours
  • Maintaining healthy weight
  • Getting daily physical exercise
  • Having regular screening, such as colonoscopy, for colorectal cancer
  • Managing other health conditions such as diabetes


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