As with many other functions in the body, digestion will also succumb to the effects of ageing to a greater extent. The causes leading to poor digestion in elderly persons would be multi dimensional and an understanding of these deficiencies as well as the adjustments that can be made would be of immense importance to prevent age associated malnutrition among the rising numbers of ageing population.
As the body becomes less able to absorb the necessary amounts of nutrients through the digestive tract in older age, the nature has provided compensation through lessening the requirement of energy by up to 10% each decade, based on the fact that elderly persons have reduced metabolic rate as well as lower lean body mass. But, it should be noted that the relative requirement of nutrients will stay the same throughout life.
In general, the defective functioning of digestive organs, poor secretions or ineffective secretion of digestive enzymes as well as bad selection of ingested foods can contribute towards age related digestive problems.
The changes and effects on digestion:
Now we will have a look at some of the age related effects on digestion of foods.
1. Poor feeling of smell and taste
The condition being largely related to reduced number of sensory receptors would ultimately affect the individuals appetite as well as selection of foods.
2. Dry mouth
Deficient salivary gland functions will lead to poor secretions and thus causes dry mouth and ulcers in the oral cavity. These effects can lead to poor intake as well as reduces the individuals’ ability to digest certain elements through saliva.
3. Difficulty to chew
Loss of teeth, ulcers, dry mouth conditions and ill fitting dentures will all contribute to this problem and the most important mechanical breakage of foods will become diminished in such persons. It will further prevent the person from taking in certain solid foods and thus will in turn affect the digestive process.
4. Difficult swallowing
Elderly people will complain the difficulty in swallowing largely due to reduced mobility in the oesophagus as well as in the pharyngeal area. This can prevent the person from taking certain foods which would otherwise support the digestive process such as with high fibre diets.
5. Reduced stretchability of the stomach
Elderly individuals will be less able to tolerate large meals due to reduce expandability of the stomach and would reduce the amount of food that a person would prefer to take. The result would be lessening of the nutrients that would have received if such restrictions are not present.
6. Poor secretion of digestive juices
It has been shown that digestive juices in the stomach as well as from pancreas will be reduced in the elderly and thus will lead to poor breakdown of certain elements and poor absorption of nutrients.
7. Diminished digestive surface area of the intestine
The absorption of nutrients is taking place mainly in the small intestine and it has adopted itself in doing so by increasing the surface area by means of villous structures. In the elderly age, these villous structures will diminish in numbers as well as in function and thus makes the surface area for digestion and absorption less.
8. Increased transit time
It has been noted that the transit time within the colon increases with age and the reason is thought to be the reduced peristalsis in the region. This will lead to more water being absorbed and making the digestive end products to be dry and less easy to expel making the individual constipated. It can secondarily affect the appetite of the person as bloated feeling and abdominal fullness as well as difficult defecation prevents the person from taking enough foods.
Apart from these changes in the intestinal tract, other organs such as the liver, pancreas as well as gallbladder will undergo changes which will secondarily affect the digestive process.