Dec 15, 2017

Irritable Bowel Syndrome in the Elderly – An Overlooked Problem?

IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a fairly common disorder that is signalled by abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhoea, gas, bloating, constipation or a mix of these symptoms. Affecting the large intestine, IBS is a chronic condition that requires management lifelong. Most people have mild symptoms with occasional flare-ups. However, there is a smaller group of people who have more critical, severe symptoms.

While it is possible for some people to manage their IBS through a strict diet, stress management and lifestyle, often symptoms require medical treatment to manage. IBS doesn’t change bowel tissue or increase risk of colorectal cancer.

In the elderly, there is a risk of incorrect diagnosis, so it is important to continue with regular checkups to ensure that more serious conditions are detected if present or develop later on.

Who is at Risk?

According to the Mayo Clinic, occasional signs and symptoms of IBS can occur in just about anyone. However, it is more common in people under the age of 50, are female, have a family history of IBS or have an existing mental health condition.

Estrogen therapy before or after menopause adds to the risk factor, as does a genetic disposition for IBS including possible environmental issues. Since stress is a large risk factor, those who suffer from anxiety, depression or other mental health issues frequently suffer from IBS.

Another risk factor is any history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.


At this time, there is no specific cause that has been identified for IBS. However, there are factors that can lead to IBS as well as some triggers that you can look out for.

  • Changes of bacteria in the gut (microflora)
  • Severe infection
  • Inflammation of the intestines
  • Nervous system changes
  • Muscle contractions in the intestine

When diagnosing IBS, especially in the elderly, it is important to get a full examination. IBS can be misdiagnosed due to similar symptoms to other intestinal disorders.

All of the causes listed create changes in the intestine whether it is the difference in bacteria or the change as a result of an infection. Each of these causes leads to a long-term change to the walls or environment inside the intestine as it processes food for digestion.


There are clear triggers that bring on a flare-up of IBS which can be managed.


Food is the trigger that is most easily managed. There may be a relationship between food allergies and IBS, because specific foods trigger IBS in people. Each person has different trigger foods, but the main culprits are wheat, dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage, milk and carbonated drinks.


Stress is less easily managed. However, it has a connection to IBS. Stress tends to aggravate symptoms, but isn’t a direct cause.


Hormones are suspected in having a role in IBS, due to the fact that women tend to have more effects during times of hormonal change. Menopause may play a role for seniors.


While some people think that IBS or any intestinal discomfort is exacerbated with aging, that fact is untrue. In fact, healthy living in general, can help improve the overall quality of life for seniors and alleviate symptoms of IBS.

  • Reduce stress: Seniors may be more affected by stress than younger people. Reducing stress as much as possible in daily life will also reduce IBS flare-ups.
  • Exercise: Mild exercise is known to improve many health issues and it will also help with IBS. Walking, yoga and other peaceful, low-impact exercises are ideal for managing this disease.
  • Changing Diet: A diet free of the foods that are triggers for IBS will improve the incidence of flare-ups greatly. You can certainly control foods eaten at home, and work to manage diet when eating in other places.
  • Medication/Supplements: Your doctor can prescribe medications and/or supplements to help alleviate and control your IBS. You shouldn’t mix supplements with prescribed medication without conferring with your physician first. Some supplements can counteract medications.

While Irritable Bowel Syndrome may be embarrassing, it is important to take care of it regularly to reduce symptoms. Don’t forget to remind yourself or your senior that it is quite common and treating it is a better choice than ignoring it. After all, with treatment, they will live much more comfortably and happily.

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