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Tips to maintain stomach health as you age

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman

To maintain a baseline of health, it is important to have a high-protein diet to maintain muscle mass and to eat enough foods that are high in vitamins and minerals so that there are no deficiencies, according to Dr. Christopher Schmoyer, a gastroenterologist, and assistant professor of clinical gastroenterology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“One of the main foundations of our health is our diet,” Dr. Schmoyer said. “And optimal nutrition can help people respond better to illness.”

Dr. Schmoyer said there are a lot of age-related effects on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases describes the GI tract as a “series of hollow organs joined in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus. The hollow organs that make up the GI tract are the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus. The liver, pancreas and gall bladder are the solid organs of the digestive system.”

The decreased muscle mass that occurs with aging “is believed to have a significant role in the GI tract,” Dr. Schmoyer said. “Loss of muscle tone throughout the body is linked to increased constipation and fecal incontinence in older adults.

Decreased muscular function in the intestine itself slows the normal movement of stool through the body. Pelvic floor muscles, which are important to both hold in and expel stool, can also weaken.”

Older adults are also more susceptible to intrinsic GI diseases, like diverticulitis, GI bleeding and colon cancer, Dr. Schmoyer said. In addition, aging adults can also develop food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance from poor digestion of certain sugars, which can cause bloating or gas. “A lot of times people start having issues digesting milk or other dairy products as they get older,” Dr. Schmoyer said. “Our natural ability to make the enzyme required to break down lactose decreases with age.”

Sugars in fruits and vegetables, such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and apples, can cause similar problems. Of course, this can depend on the person. Not everyone will have issues breaking down all types of sugars.

“If you notice something in your diet that causes symptoms, like bloating or gas production, then that should be reduced,” Dr. Schmoyer said. “I wouldn’t start eliminating fruits and vegetables from your diets for no reason because all of them will have intrinsic benefits. As long as you are able to eat them, you should definitely do it.”

Some older adults reduce their intake of fruits and vegetables for any number of reasons, including difficulty chewing or due to mobility issues that make it harder to go to the store. Certain medicines can also decrease appetites, as can loneliness and isolation.

As much as it’s important to keep fresh fruit and vegetables in diets, it’s also important to maintain a purpose in life, as well as social networks and oral health, Dr. Schmoyer said. He also recommended taking vitamins in case a person isn’t getting enough nutrients. (See article on page 12 of March 2024 Milestones newspaper.)

Foods that increase inflammation in our bodies or increase the risk of developing many types of cancer are red meat; smoked meat, like bacon and sausage; foods high in saturated fats and salt; processed foods; and alcohol.

The healthiest way to live, Dr. Schmoyer said, is to follow a Mediterranean diet, which includes poultry, fish and nuts for protein sources, balanced out by various fruits and vegetables and high fiber foods.

“As much as you can in older age, cook on your own as long as you can,” Dr. Schmoyer said. “Or at least buy foods that are as fresh as possible without trying to reach for the things that are in a box or in a can on the shelf.”

Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

Categories: Health Milestones eNews


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