Guard Your Gut
You keep a standing appointment at the salon to cover your grays, practically have an ownership stake in Olay and do crossword puzzles as if your brain depended on them — all in the name of fighting back the signs of age. But there’s probably one body part you’ve overlooked in the process — your digestive system. That’s right, your reliable GI tract is every bit as susceptible to aging as your looks and your memory.
“The GI tract is always replenishing itself,” says Gina Sam, M.D. and director of Mount Sinai’s Gastrointestinal Motility Center in New York City. “But there are natural, age-related changes to the digestive system — which is everything from the mouth to the bowels — that will impact how smoothly and effectively it continues to work.”
Higher odds of experiencing heartburn and constipation, slower digestion and a decreased ability to absorb beneficial nutrients from food are just a few of those shifts you can expect as you enter your 50s and 60s, says Dr. Sam. Fortunately, there are many lifestyle behaviors that can slow and sometimes prevent many gut gripes. Here’s a top-to-bottom look at how your GI tract might age and what you can do to safeguard it for the longterm.
You need strong, healthy teeth to properly chew your food into small enough pieces so that bites don’t get stuck in your esophagus. Protect yourself: Stay on top of your twice yearly dentist checkups, and make sure you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D through your diet or with supplements. Women ages 51 to 70 need 1,200 mg of calcium and 600 IUs of vitamin D each day; those under 51 need daily doses totaling 1,000 mg of calcium and 600 IUs of vitamin D. Adult men up to age 70 also need 1,000 mg of calcium and 600 IUs of vitamin D each day.
The muscular tube that food travels down to enter your stomach gets weaker as you get older, which for some people may make it more difficult to swallow. The condition known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), which causes pain and a burning sensation in your chest, can also lead to narrowing of the esophagus. Protect yourself: Unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent the natural weakening, says Dr. Sam. Your best measure is to keep your teeth healthy and properly chew your food before swallowing. GERD, on the other hand, can often be avoided by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and cutting out high-fat meals. Some people may require medication to help alleviate symptoms.
Lower Esophageal Sphincter
This ring-like muscle is like the gateway to the stomach: It opens up to allow food to pass through to the stomach, then closes when the esophagus is empty. But this muscle also gets weaker with age, making heartburn and acid reflux more of a problem for those in their 50s and older. What happens is the muscle won’t relax properly, allowing acid and sometimes stomach contents to make their way back up. Protect yourself: “Many times what, and how, you eat can mean the difference from feeling satisfied after a good meal to feeling downright awful,” says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian who is a clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. If you’ve suffered from heartburn in the past, take note of your trigger foods so you can learn what to avoid. Spicy and highly acid foods, like citrus fruit, are common culprits, as are high-fat offerings (such as a thick steak or bacon). Eating smaller meals can also help control the volume of food in your stomach to lessen your chances of heartburn.
Expect lots of changes in your stomach as you get older, says Dr. Sam, who is also an assistant professor of gastroenterology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Most notably, she says, its protective lining will diminish so it will be more susceptible to damage. It’s also going to take longer to breakdown your food. Commonly prescribed medications for heart disease, arthritis and back pain (as well as some over-the-counter pain relievers) also do a number on the stomach lining, which can put you at a greater risk for developing ulcers. Protect yourself: As with the esophagus, there’s not a lot you can do to actively safeguard your stomach, says Dr. Sam. For example, there’s not a list of super foods to stock up on. But she says leading an overall healthy lifestyle will definitely help long term. That means exercising regularly; eating a well-balanced diet that’s high in fiber (think whole grains, fruits and vegetables) and low in saturated fat and sugar; getting plenty of uninterrupted sleep; limiting your alcohol; not smoking; and managing your stress levels. “The GI tract is very linked to stress levels,” she says. “We’ve likely all experienced that connection when we’re nervous or upset and suddenly feel nauseous or have to race to get to the bathroom. So having a good outlet is important to help control any stress symptoms.”
The movement of foods through your small bowels won’t change much, but the absorption of key nutrients (including calcium and vitamins A, B-12, K, and D) will decline, says Dr. Sam. In the colon (large intestine), the muscle movement gets slower and the ways that the channels of the colon work also get altered, she says. That’s why adults in midlife experience a higher rate of constipation and are at a greater risk of developing colon cancer and diverticulitis (when small pouches in the colon become infected). Protect yourself: Increasing your daily fiber intake and turning your burger habit into an occasional treat can help keep this part of your GI tract healthy and happy, says Salge Blake. To get the recommended 25 to 30 grams of fiber you need, eat more whole grains and try to have a vegetable and/or a fruit with every meal and snack. Replace that burger with lean protein sources, like fish, beans and skinless chicken. It’s also important to get a colonoscopy screening when you turn 50, or sooner if you have a family history of colon cancer or other troubling signs, such as blood in your stools, adds Dr. Sam.