With aging comes a number of digestive issues. Diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and flatulence are very common problems related to aging. Oral health, lifestyle and diet, medication use, motility, hormones, and anatomy are among many of the contributing factors. Eating a diet that minimizes inflammation and poor digestion lowers risk for chronic diseases and is key to increasing longevity and quality of life.
Studies have shown that even people in their later years who modify their diets and improve lifestyle habits can lower their risk for disease, particularly heart disease. Thus, everyone, including individuals who have had poor dietary habits for years can benefit from including more nutrient dense and fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fewer high fat protein sources, dairy, and refined, processed foods.
Eat a Nutrient-Dense Diet
As people age, they tend to eat less food and minimize variety. Ensuring that the diet is nutrient-rich is crucial, especially if poor appetite is a factor. If food budget, dependence on institutional meals, taste changes, or dental health is a problem, finding alternatives within each food group is important. Frozen/canned fruits and vegetables can be a great alternative to fresh. Finding alternate, less expensive protein sources such as eggs and beans is also a good option.
Reducing meal size and intake of high-fat foods in addition to modifying caffeine and alcohol consumption can help with a number of digestive issues.
Staying Lean is Key
The New England Centenarian Study at the University School of Medicine is the largest, most comprehensive study of centenarians and their families. One goal of this study is to observe lifestyle factors that study participants share to help uncover the secrets of longevity. To date, no specific foods have been noted, but the study has shown that almost all people who reach the age of 100 years are lean, particularly men. Obesity may be considered an actual risk factor for early death, so maintaining a healthy weight is an important goal.
Lessons from Others
Okinawa, a group of 161 Japanese islands, boasts the world’s longest living people, who experience the lowest rates of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. The average woman lives to the age of 86 and the average man to 78 compared to 79 and 72 respectively in the United States. They also typically die of natural causes rather than disease.
Although there are a number of lifestyle factors that contribute, eating habits likely play a crucial role. Okinawans eat an average of seven servings of vegetables and fruits daily, along with seven servings of grains, two servings of soy products, omega-3 fatty acid rich fish several times per week, few dairy products, and little meat.
The National Institutes of Health, Diet and Health Study, also found that individuals who mimic the traditional diets of Greece and southern Italy cut their risk of death from chronic diseases by 20%. A healthy Mediterranean diet focuses on vegetables, legumes (dried beans and peas), fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish, and a high monounsaturated to saturated fat ratio and deemphasizes alcohol and meat.
It is estimated that by age 50, one-third of Americans will have some diverticulitis and by age 80, nearly two-thirds will have diverticular disease. Alcohol intake is a risk factor for diverticulitis and may be one of the reasons for it’s prevalence in Westernized countries. Heavy intake of highly processed, low-fiber foods has also been shown to be a contributing factor.
Food intolerances can also occur at any age and may be a consideration if chronic diarrhea or constipation is an issue. Lactose intolerance increases with advanced age, with some research noting a 50% occurrence in elderly subjects. Celiac disease is also increasing in elderly populations, however, GI symptoms related to celiac disease tend to be subtler and often undiagnosed. Consult with your doctor if you suspect a food intolerance.
Achieving a disease free, and healthy digestive state is possible throughout the aging process. Nutritious eating, stress management, exercise, and other positive lifestyle habits can help one reach this goal.