Aging with Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders in the nation. According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, there are between 2.4 and 3.5 million annual physician visits for IBS in the United States. Diagnosis of IBS is becoming increasingly common among older adults. A study published in Geriatrics found that 10 to 20 percent of the older adult population had symptoms that were characteristic of IBS. Although most people are never cured of IBS, it’s important for aging adults to learn about this condition so they may be proactive in managing it.

What’s IBS?

IBS is a disorder of the intestines that causes pain, abdominal cramping, bloating and constipation or diarrhea. Other symptoms include whitish mucus in the stool and feeling that a bowel movement is not complete. IBS causes discomfort, but does not damage the digestive tract. IBS is a chronic condition and symptoms can last for years or come and go, depending on the person. There is no test for IBS, doctors make a diagnosis on the basis of a person’s symptoms over time. Physicians and researchers don’t know for sure what causes irritable bowel syndrome. One possibility is that it comes from changes in the way that the brain and the intestines communicate. These communication problems can cause the intestines to be more sensitive and cause changes in how the muscles in the bowel contract. This could lead to diarrhea, constipation or both.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) website, there are three types of IBS. The types are based on different patterns of changes to bowel movements or abnormal bowel movements. They include:

IBS with constipation (IBS-C)

  • IBS-C is characterized by days with at least one abnormal bowel movement.
  • more than a quarter of stools are hard or lumpy
  • less than a quarter of stools are loose or watery

IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D)

  • IBS-D is characterized by days with at least one abnormal bowel movement.
  • more than a quarter of stools are loose or watery
  • less than a quarter of stools are hard or lumpy

IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M)

  • IBS-M is characterized by days with at least one abnormal bowel movement.
  • more than a quarter of stools hard or lumpy
  • more than a quarter of stools are loose or watery

Who develops IBS?

Both women and men can have IBS, however; women are up to two times more likely than men to develop the condition, according to the NIDDK. Other factors that increase the likelihood of having IBS include having a family member with IBS, a history of stressful or difficult life events and having a severe digestive tract infection.

Managing IBS

A healthcare provider may treat irritable bowel syndrome with medication, recommended lifestyle changes or a combination of the two. Depending on the type of IBS a person has, medications used for treatment can include anti-diarrhea medicines, antibiotics, laxatives, muscle spasm medicines and antidepressants. Lifestyle recommendations may include a change in diet. IBS sufferers who change their diet may improve their symptoms. Suggested changes may include eating more fiber, avoiding gluten and following a special diet called the FODMAP diet. Fiber may help constipation because it makes stools easier to pass. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults consume 22 to 34 grams of fiber daily.  People with IBS may be told to avoid foods that contain gluten because it can trigger symptoms. Foods that contain gluten include most cereal, grains, pasta and many processed foods. The low FODMAP diet is an eating plan that reduces or omits foods that contain hard to digest carbohydrates. The FODMAP acronym stands for the series of carbohydrate foods to avoid: Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, and Monosaccharides and Polyols. These foods trigger worse IBS symptoms. Examples of foods that contain FODMAPs include:

  • Apples, apricots, blackberries, cherries, mango, nectarines, pears, plums and watermelon or juice containing any of these fruits
  • Canned fruit in natural fruit juice or large amounts of fruit juice or dried fruit
  • Artichokes, asparagus, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic and garlic salts, lentils, mushrooms, onions and sugar snap or snow peas
  • Milk, milk products, soft cheeses, yogurt, custard and ice cream
  • Wheat and rye products
  • Honey and foods with high-fructose corn syrup
  • Products, including candy and gum, with sweeteners ending in “–ol,” such as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol and maltitol

When to seek help

Although there is no test for IBS, a doctor may diagnose the condition if a person has abdominal pain accompanied by two or more of the following symptoms:

  • Pain related to bowel movements. For example, pain that may improve or get worse after bowel movements.
  • A change in frequency of bowel movements
  • A change in the appearance of stools

If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of IBS, consult your healthcare provider about a physical exam.

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