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Difficult Digestion? Dr. Edward Piken Offers Simple Solutions

Dr. PikenDr. Piken has practiced medicine in Torrance for more than 31 yearsDr. Piken is the former Chief of Medicine and the former Associate Chief of Gastroenterology at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. Today he offers some simple solutions for the difficult digestion facing many seniors.

The most common digestive complaints seniors have are bowel issues such as diarrhea, constipation, pain or bloating. Why is this?

The intestines require muscular propulsion called peristalsis to function properly. As we get older, we find that the intestinal muscles like the other muscles in the body become less effective.

If you’re suffering from diarrhea, constipation, and pain or bloating, what can you do?

The initial approach is lifestyle. Increase your fiber intake to “exercise” the colon. I also recommend reducing caffeine, alcohol and nicotine because these stimulate the GI tract and can disrupt normal peristaltic activity.

What if changing your lifestyle isn’t enough?

The next step is to increase your intake of yogurt, which is rich in probiotics. These are healthy bacteria in your GI tract, which encourage easy digestion. You can also eliminate all other dairy products because these tend to cause bloating.

Can diarrhea, constipation, pain or bloating be signs of something more serious than just an aging digestive tract?

Yes. They’re also signs of diverticulosis. This is a condition where abnormal pockets develop in the colon from weak spots in the colon wall.

A whopping 60% of Americans over age 60 has diverticulosis. It can lead to obstructions, bleeding or infections called diverticulitis. Symptoms of diverticulitis include fever, chills and nausea. The most common symptom is pain on the lower left side of your abdomen that often worsens when you move.

How do you treat diverticulosis?

You should eat a high-fiber diet to reduce the colon pressures. You should also avoid nuts, seeds and unpopped popcorn to prevent hard particles from entering the colon pockets and tearing or clogging the colon.

What about heartburn?

Heartburn is also very common. In addition to acid reduction medication, you can relieve heartburn by eating smaller portions, eating more slowly, avoiding alcohol and raising the head of your bed six inches by putting blocks under your bed posts.

Is heartburn serious?

It can be serious if it’s chronic. Chronic heartburn irritates the lining of the esophagus and makes it more susceptible to cancer.

Many patients develop a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus prior to cancer. Fortunately, Barrett’s Esophagus can be treated with acid reduction medicine, laser therapy or special burning techniques.

Are there other cancers that attack the GI tract that seniors should be aware of?

Yes. The most frequent cancers are colon cancer (which is the number two cancer killer) esophageal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and gastric cancers as well as less common bile duct tumors.

Who is at risk for colon cancer?

Your risk for all GI tract cancers increases as you age. Colon cancer tends to be genetic. If you have a history of colon cancer, polyps or breast and uterine cancer in your family you’re at higher risk.

In addition, a history of colitis increases your risk of developing colon cancer over 100 times the general population.

What about the risk of other GI cancers?

Your risk of gastric cancer is higher if you are pan-pacific, particularly if you were born in China, Japan and Korea.

Initially we thought it was dietary differences but now it appears to be multi-factorial including a higher chance of a gastric bacterial infection called Helicobacter.

Many celebrities like Patrick Swayze and Michael Landon developed pancreatic cancer. What can you tell us about this condition?

We know less about the cause of pancreatic cancer. However, what we do know is that the disease isn’t entirely genetic. It can be caused by exposure to asbestos, smoking and excessive coffee consumption.