Gastronomical Effects of Aging

You may not think of your mouth as being part of the gastrointestinal system, but in fact, it's the very starting point of the process by which you digest foods and absorb nutrients. As you age, chewing can become more difficult, you may chew more slowly, and you may not chew your food as efficiently. That's especially true if you have dentures or poor dentition.

Chewing is important, though, because it breaks down food so that stomach acid and intestinal enzymes can better attack it, digesting it to its smallest components to be absorbed by the intestine. When you swallow larger pieces of food, it takes about 50 to 100 percent longer for it to make its way to your stomach because your esophagus, the pipe that connects your mouth with your stomach, doesn't contract as forcefully as it did when you were younger.

As a result, you are also more vulnerable to choking. Slowing down and chewing food thoroughly will help you make the most out of your eating experience and help eliminate some of the problems caused by gulping larger chunks of food. As many as 30 percent of Americans over the age of 60 do not produce enough stomach acid because of two conditions: hypotrophic gastritis (reduced production of stomach acid) or atrophic gastritis (the absence of stomach acid).

You may not feel either of these conditions, but their effects are real. Too little stomach acid results in faulty vitamin B12 absorption. A deficiency of vitamin B12 in your bloodstream and tissues can lead to pernicious anemia and irreversible nervous-system impairment and may contribute to high levels of homocysteine in your blood. High homocysteine is one of the risk factors for heart disease.

People over age 60 have a greater risk of developing gallstones, perhaps because of the narrowing of the bile duct at the opening of the intestine. A high fat diet also puts you at greater risk. When you digest fat you need bile, a substance made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Gallstones form when liquid stored in the gallbladder hardens into rock-hard material.

As you get older, you produce less lactase, the digestive enzyme that breaks down the carbohydrate in dairy products known as lactose. It's difficult to pinpoint how many older people can't tolerate the likes of milk, cheese, and ice cream. But if you have bloating and discomfort beginning within hours of eating dairy products, you probably have some diminished tolerance for lactose.

Lactose intolerance is individual. That's why you may be able to tolerate some dairy products and not others. For example, many people with lactose intolerance can eat yogurt, which is lower in lactose than a glass of milk. In addition, consuming milk or other dairy products with food helps to decrease the effects of lactose intolerance, as does consuming smaller amounts at a time.

As you get older, your gut -- particularly your colon -- may become sluggish and less toned. One in three people age 60 or older have diverticula, which are outpouchings in the lining of the large intestine. These pouches are the result of increased pressure within the intestine caused by decreased muscle tone. In addition, when your gut gets sluggish, you become more vulnerable to constipation.

Your liver is your largest internal organ, weighing in at about three pounds. But it gets smaller with time, beginning around age 50. The liver's shrinkage begins at the same time that body weight and muscle mass start their decline. However, in the very old, the liver becomes disproportionately small. Having less liver tissue and decreased blood flow to this organ means that your body may handle certain medications differently.

That's why the older you get, the more often you and your doctor should evaluate the effect of all of the medications you take and discuss your alcohol intake.

You can't live without it, but you probably know little about why your liver is so important. The liver:

  • makes bile, which helps you digest fat
  • helps determine the amount of nutrients that are sent to the rest of your body
  • stores glycogen, a complex carbohydrate that is converted to sugar and released into the bloodstream, providing fuel for your body when your blood sugar level falls
  • synthesizes many proteins
  • processes drugs that have been absorbed by the digestive tract into easy-to-use forms for the body
  • detoxifies and gets rid of substances that would otherwise be poisonous, such as the waste products from the breakdown of medications and alcoh

With time, you may become infected with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) -- a pesky bacteria that hitches a ride on the stomach lining and is the cause of nearly all ulcers. Ulcers are sores or holes in the lining of the stomach or duodenum, a part of the small intestine. They cause pain when the stomach is empty, such as between meals and in the wee hours of the morning, but irritation can come at any time.

Sometimes the pain lasts for minutes; other times it hangs around for hours. Eating or taking antacids may relieve your distress, but only temporarily. H. Pylori infects about 60 percent of American adults by age 60, but infection with the bacterium does not necessarily mean you will develop an ulcer.

However, the presence of H. Pylori does increase your chances because it weakens the protective mucous coating in the digestive tract and makes it vulnerable to the corrosive effects of stomach acid. H. pylori infection is easily cured with antibiotics, sometimes in combination with acid-suppressing medication to alleviate the symptoms and heal the ulcer.

How will you know if H. pylori is plaguing you? Your health care provider can use any of the following tests to diagnose H. pylori infection:

  • Blood tests: A blood test can confirm H. pylori infection.
  • Breath tests: This involves drinking a harmless liquid and having a sample of your breath tested one hour later to detect H. pylori.
  • Endoscopy: A small tube with a camera inside is inserted through your mouth and into the stomach to look for ulcers. During this procedure, small samples of the stomach lining can be gathered for testing for H. pylori.

You've got two of them, and boy, are they a busy pair. All the blood in your body is constantly filtered by the kidneys, which determine the elements to keep and those to eliminate in urine. Without adequate kidney function, you would not be able to clear toxic byproducts of normal metabolism or those of medication breakdown.

Nor would you be able to regulate water balance and blood pressure. Functioning kidneys actually participate in bone health, too, by finishing off vitamin D production that begins in the skin and by regulating calcium and phosphorus loss in urine.

When you're born, each kidney tips the scale at a shade more than 1.5 ounces. As you grow, so do they -- to about nine ounces a piece. But as you age, they begin to decrease in size. By your eighties, they've shrunk to about six ounces each. Kidneys also gradually become less efficient at filtering your blood and making urine, beginning around age 30. And as you get on, less blood makes it to the kidneys.

While scientists agree that kidney function drops off with age, they can't agree on why. It could be that you lose nephrons, or kidney cells, and this decreases the organs' capabilities. Some say that undetected infection, injury, and medication reactions and a decrease in blood flow caused by vascular disease may be the reason that kidney function flounders.

Whatever the cause, you can preserve kidney function by drinking plenty of fluids; controlling cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, as much as possible; and keeping blood glucose levels in check, especially if you have been diagnosed with diabetes. Chronically high blood glucose destroys the tiny blood vessels that supply the kidneys, causing cell damage and death.

Now that you've digested a hearty amount of information about the gastronomical effects of aging, it's time to learn about the immunological effects of aging. Continue to the next page to find out more.

To learn more about senior health, see: