Incontinence, Constipation, Ulcers and More—What Seniors Need to Know


What’s that saying? Getting older isn’t for wimps. Our bodies go through changes over the years that can make us look back and see the good health we took for granted! Some of those changes happen to our urinary and digestive systems. Suddenly, you’re waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom – sometimes more than once. You’re spending more time in the bathroom because you’re constipated or you have diarrhea. Even the upper gastrointestinal tract gets involved with all sorts of weird problems, like acid reflux or indigestion like you never had before.

According to the Medical University of South Carolina, 40% of elderly individuals will suffer from an age-related digestive problem every year. And according to WebMD and the CDC, over 51% of adults aged 65 or older suffer from incontinence of the bladder or bowel. That’s a pretty big number for something that many people don’t like to talk about!

But the more you know about your body and what is happening to it, the better prepared you can be, and the earlier you can spot symptoms of things that are far more serious than everyday aging.

How Our Digestive and Urinary Systems Work

These bodily systems are quite complicated, as you might imagine. But for our purposes, let’s make it easy: when you take in fluids and foods, your body begins working to process them immediately. It starts with your teeth, breaking down the foods into small bits, and the saliva in your mouth to start breaking them down even more. Food and drink goes down the esophagus and into the stomach, where the real action begins with digestive juices.

The stomach feeds into the intestines. As food passes through, your digestive system is working hard to break it down into basic elements, such as glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids, as well as pulling out the minerals and nutrients. These elements are absorbed into the bloodstream through the walls of the small intestine and carried throughout the body, providing everything from hydration to energy to healing of wounds. After the small intestine does its work, the remaining matter goes into the large intestine. Eventually it is expelled when you have a bowel movement.

Your urinary tract works in conjunction with your digestive tract. This system is a filter that helps your body remove waste from the digestive system and blood vessels. The kidneys are an essential part of this bodily system. Small arteries lead to the kidneys. The blood that goes through them is filtered by the kidneys, separated into the good things you need – like nutrients – and the bad things you don’t – the waste products. The nutrients, proteins, and other good things return to the bloodstream while the bad things are directed into the bladder, where it becomes urine. Your bladder holds the urine until you use the bathroom.

Most of the time, these systems work seamlessly. We might not even really notice it happening. Sometimes you might feel or hear your stomach and intestines gurgle. Occasionally you’ll feel a build-up of gas in the intestines that can be uncomfortable. The urge to urinate is usually so common and uneventful that if someone were to ask you how many times you urinated today, you might not be able to remember! And that’s how it is, for most of us, throughout our lives.

Until we get older, that is.

When Digestion Begins to Change

It’s tough to say what “normal” bowel movements are, because everyone is different and what is strange for one person is just another bathroom trip for another. However, there are some basics. A range of normal can include a bowel movement once every other day to three times a day, usually after meals. Each person tends to fall into a pattern of a bowel movement at roughly the same time every day, or every other day[1].

According to the Bristol Stool Chart (yes, there is such a thing), a typical consistency of stool is soft or firm. Some might suffer from hard stools, known as constipation, while others might experience watery or loose ones, known as diarrhea. Though consistency can change dramatically from time to time (as anybody who has ever eaten something that didn’t settle well can attest), that consistency tends to come back to a person’s usual normal of soft or firm stool that is easy to pass.

But sometimes, things go sideways. Here are some of the issues you might experience in the lower gastrointestinal tract[2]:

·         Constipation. This is likely the most common issue you’ll face as you get older. This can happen due to changes in the digestive system, which relies on muscle contractions to move food through it. The process of digestion slows down as we get older, which means waste from food stays in the body longer and has time to compact down into harder stool.  In addition, more water is absorbed from food waste, which makes the stool drier. Add in the use of medications that might slow down the digestive tract as well as a potentially sedentary lifestyle and not drinking enough fluids, and you’ve got a perfect storm for bathroom issues.

·         Diarrhea. When the digestive tract moves too fast, the body doesn’t have time to remove water from the food waste. This results in loose, watery stools. There can also be cramping and other abdominal discomfort, as well as a serious urge to go to the bathroom immediately. Up to 14% of seniors experience diarrhea on a regular basis[3].

·         Diverticular disease. According to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, about 50% of those aged 60 or older and 65% of those aged 85 and older have this condition. It happens when the lining of the colon bulges out where the intestinal wall is weak. This aging of the colon can lead to bloating, gas, cramps, and constipation. Or you might have no symptoms at all. But in some cases it can become more severe.

·         Ulcers. Though aging alone doesn’t increase your risk of developing ulcers, some of the medications you take could, especially non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. In many cases, you might not feel any pain from an ulcer even if you are experiencing internal bleeding from one of them. Look for dark stools, passing blood when you defecate, or vomiting up blood. (If you are dealing with a severe ulcer, the bleeding could lead to weakness and fatigue – two very good reasons to invest in medical alert technology right away.)

·         Hemorrhoids. You might have heard these called “piles.” They are small veins in and around the rectum that have become swollen. These can be internal or external. Some of them are quite painful, while others might not be felt at all. In severe cases, there can be significant pain, bleeding, and even difficulty with passing stool. This is quite common, with 75% of adults experiencing hemorrhoids at some point[4].

·         Polyps. These tiny growths in the colon can eventually grow into cancer, which is why screening colonoscopies are recommended starting at the age of 45[5]. When caught very early, even cancerous polyps can often be removed with no problems.

Speak to your doctor about any of these issues. Though it might seem embarrassing, your doctor has heard just about everything you could possibly mention about bowel movements! Besides that, it’s important information for them to help manage your health needs.

When Urinary Function Begins to Change

For most of us, urinary function works with us barely noticing. We simply feel the urge to urinate, we do so, and that’s it. But as we age, certain things change. Medline tells us that kidney function slows down and the amount of kidney tissue we have decreases. The small filtering units in the kidneys, called nephrons, decrease with age. And the blood vessels can harden, which means blood filters slowly. In addition, the bladder wall can become stiff and doesn’t hold as much urine as it used to. The muscles around the bladder get weaker. In men, an enlarged prostate gland can make it tough to urinate.

What does this mean? A host of potential issues, including:

·         Urinary incontinence. This is when the bladder leaks urine, usually as a result of weakened muscles around the bladder. It can also be caused by nerve damage, overactive muscles (resulting in a near-constant urge to urinate), certain diseases such as arthritis or diabetes, and pelvic organ prolapse. Incontinence is common in older individuals, especially women[6].

·         Urinary retention. This happens when the bladder doesn’t empty properly, leaving urine in there even after you’ve urinated. The result can be a consistent urge to use the bathroom, a feeling of urgency, or even incontinence. The retained urine might also lead to UTIs, or urinary tract infections.

·         Urinary tract infections. There are three types of urinary tract infections: those of the bladder, kidneys, or urethra. About 50% of women will have a UTI in their lifetime, with the risk of it much higher among older women. Keep in mind that while typical signs of a urinary tract infection include urine that is cloudy and smells bad, pain or burning when you urinate, a strong need to urinate even after voiding, and a mild fever, the symptoms of a UTI in the elderly can be quite different. For older adults, the only symptoms might be mental changes and confusion, or feeling fatigued, shaky, or weak[7]. (If you are prone to UTIs, consider a medical alert wireless system to help improve your safety at home.)

·         Chronic kidney disease. Also known as kidney failure, this is a gradual condition that allows waste to build up in your body as your kidneys work less efficiently. Eventually, the kidneys don’t work enough to filter as you need them to. The result is the need for dialysis or a kidney transplant. Getting regular testing for kidney issues can help you avoid this situation.

·         Difficult urination. This is often a problem for men who have an enlarged prostate gland. Over time, the gland can block the flow of urine, leading to urinary retention and possible kidney damage[8]. Fortunately, there are treatments to help.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. If you are feeling any symptom of urinary problems, speak to your doctor immediately. In most cases, whatever you’re dealing with can be treated quite effectively, and that can make your quality of life much better.

How Medications Can Affect Bowel or Urinary Functions

Obviously medications have all sorts of effects on the body. They are prescribed for good reasons, such as a medication for hypertension bringing your blood pressure down. But even the simplest medications can have unpleasant side effects, and those side effects can contribute to bowel or urinary problems. One of the biggest culprits for constipation is the use of narcotic painkillers, which are routinely prescribed after surgeries. Narcotics slow the movements of the gut, which can lead to constipation.

In addition, some medications can lead to other issues. Narcotics, for instance, usually make a person tired or give them a sort of “brain fog” or confusion. Wearing a medical alert pendant, especially one with fall detection, becomes even more important when you are taking medications that can have unpleasant side effects.

If you start a new medication and suffer from constipation, diarrhea, excessive gas and the like, get in touch with your doctor to determine if there is something else you can take, or something that might ease the symptoms you’re experiencing. Never stop taking a medication without consulting your doctor first!

What You Can Do to Stay Regular

Though gastrointestinal issues can be complicated, there are some things you can do to stay as regular and healthy as possible.

·         Get plenty of exercise. The more you move, the better off your body is in every aspect, including your bathroom habits. At least 30 minutes of exercise five times each week can help to prevent many problems.

·         Keep your diet high in fiber. Load your diet with whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables to ensure you get the fiber you need to keep your stools regular.

·         Drink a lot of water. This is very important for every part of your body, but especially for your kidneys, as they need you to be well-hydrated in order to filter waste properly. If you are taking a diuretic medication, talk to your doctor about potential dehydration.

·         Maintain a healthy weight. Not only does this help you avoid problems like heart disease and diabetes, managing your weight can help you avoid taking more medications – and that means you avoid the potential side effects like constipation or diarrhea.

·         Be frank with your doctor. Talk with your doctor about what’s happening in the bathroom. There is no way the doctor can help you if you don’t!

The Bottom Line

Problems with the digestive or urinary tract are often an inevitable part of growing older. The good news is that in most cases, the symptoms can be controlled and the problems solved with the right medical interventions. But in the meantime, it’s important to protect yourself as much as you can to prevent problems in the first place. Start by paying attention to what is happening with your body, such as taking note of changes in bowel movements or urination frequency. Follow the suggestions to help you stay regular.

And consider a medical alert pendant for additional peace of mind. That’s because some of these issues can lead to other problems. For instance, a urinary tract infection can lead to confusion or severe fatigue, both of which contribute to fall risk. Diarrhea can leave you dehydrated, which can lead to weakness and even fainting. Medical alert systems with fall detection are designed to reach helpful, well-trained professionals who can assist you immediately upon detection of a fall. Consider these affordable devices as a way to stay safe as you age.