Preventing GI Disorders in Adults and the Elderly

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This program is supported by an unrestricted educational grant from Abbott.

Ageing. Most of us dread it and do everything we can to delay it. Many of us shudder at the idea of ageing, so much so that it has created a booming industry, one worth approximately $56 billion in 2018. 

The majority of the anti-ageing industry focuses on the changes we can see with our eyes, like skin creams and serums claiming to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, mostly to women.  But what about signs of ageing we can’t see, the ones below the surface? Just like your skin, the organs that make up your digestive system age with you. As we get older, we may become more susceptible to certain digestive conditions.

Two digestive disorders that increase in risk as we age are diverticular disease and colon cancer. Certain risk factors, such as age or our family history, we have no control over but did you know that there are certain lifestyle changes that may help decrease the incidence?

The decisions we make as adults have the power to positively or negatively affect our health as we age. If you want to learn how to help prevent digestive conditions like colon cancer and diverticular disease, keep reading. 

Diverticular Disease 

What is diverticular disease? Although you may have never even heard of this condition, let us assure you it’s very real. Diverticular disease is an umbrella term used to describes three conditions: diverticulosis, diverticular bleeding, and diverticulitis.

  • Diverticulosis is the presence of diverticula (plural), sac-like pouches found protruding from the wall of the large bowel.
  • Diverticular bleeding occurs when these sac-like pouches rupture, causing bloody stools.
  • Diverticulitis occurs when these sac-like pouches become infected or inflamed. 

Diverticular disease is estimated to have affected over 133,875 Ontarians over a 4 year period (Weizman, Nguyen) and its prevalence increases considerably with age.

There is good news; diverticular disease may be prevented. Regular exercise and nutrition play a preventative role.

First things first: Fibre Up! 

Well, you know us, we love fibre! And now you know why! Increasing fibre in your diet along with drinking adequate amounts of water (reasonable goal could be 8 glasses a day) may help prevent diverticula from forming in the bowel. Canadian women need 25 grams of fibre per day and men need 38 grams of fibre per day; most are only getting about half that amount. 

How much fibre do you think you are you getting each day? Check out the labels on some of the foods you usually eat and tally it up. If it’s less than the recommended amount, it’s time to re-jig that diet! 

Upping your fibre isn’t difficult, there are some easy tricks to get you to the recommended amount. Try switching from white to whole grains, or eating more high-fibre fruits. Eating more vegetables and adding more legumes and beans to your diet will also make a huge difference with your fibre goals.  You may also want to consider incorporating an oral nutritional supplement with fibre. It’s another easy and convenient way to help you achieve the daily recommended fibre intake.

BUT WAIT! If you’re currently only getting around 10 grams of fibre a day (for example) do not add another 15 grams of fibre to your diet overnight! Start low and go slow; otherwise, your body won’t have time to adjust. You may experience bloating, excessive gas, and other symptoms. Talk to your doctor or arrange a visit with a registered dietitian to help you come up with a plan to add more fibre to your diet. 

Fibre Needs Water 

There are two types of fibre, soluble and insoluble. Both of these types of fibre require water to work. 

  • Soluble fibre soaks up water to become a gelatinous substance. This process, as it happens inside your body, enables the now goopy fibre to slow down the rate at which food leaves your stomach, and helps to keep you feeling full! Soluble fibre may also help to manage blood sugar levels.
  • Insoluble fibre doesn’t soak up water but traps and retains water drawn from your intestine. It adds bulk AND softens stool, which prevents things like constipation…and you guessed it, diverticular disease!  

How much water is enough? 

It depends! Your age, daily activity, your weight, how much fibre you eat… these are all factors that come into play. And chugging a glass of water with each meal is not going to cut it — drinking consistent amounts of water throughout the day is key. 

The best way to measure your hydration levels is to monitor your urine. A dark yellow or brown colour means you’re not getting enough water. If your pee is clear or very light yellow, you’re on the right track! 

Colon Cancer 

Cancer. One of the scariest words to hear and the last thing anyone wants for themselves or a loved one. Colon cancer is a preventable cancer if caught in the early stages. How do you help prevent colon cancer? Colon Cancer Screening, of course!  Every year, about 26,800 Canadians (Canadian Cancer Statistics 2017) are diagnosed with colon cancer and 9,400 will die of the disease. Colon cancer is the second most common cancer accounting for 13% of all cancers. These numbers could be much lower if more people knew about the provincial/territorial colon cancer screening program.  

When should I start screening for colon cancer? 

50 or earlier, if your risk profile suggests an earlier test. The best thing to do is to speak with your doctor. Screening protocols vary from province to province, but chances are, if you’re around the age of 50, it is recommended to have a colonoscopy or another screening  test. Your doctor will walk you through all the details, explain what you can expect and how you can prepare for this procedure.  

What happens if they find something? 

Most colon cancers arise from polyps, small growths within the colon that typically do not cause any symptoms. Polyps appear as small bulges from the bowel wall (much like a mushroom protrudes from the ground). Over time, polyps will grow and, under appropriate conditions, may turn cancerous. If detected early, polyps can be easily removed during a colonoscopy, thereby eliminating the polyps and their potential risk. 

Ageing is something we all must face. There is no magic secret to staying young but educating yourself on positive habits (nutrition, physical activity…) and screening is an excellent way to age gracefully and with confidence! 

Note: These general guidelines are not meant to replace healthcare professional advice. Talk to your doctor or dietitian for more information.