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Constipation in older adults is a common complaint. Find out what causes constipation in senior citizens and what you can do to help avoid and treat it.

Many of the usual reasons for constipation are exacerbated in the elderly and some additional factors may make them even more vulnerable, including:1, 2, 3

Senior citizens who have problems with their teeth often prefer soft, processed foods that contain very little fiber. Having irregular meals may also cause older people to not drink enough fluids.

Reduced privacy in a nursing home or having to rely on others for help using the toilet may cause elderly people to ignore or delay the urge to have a bowel movement, which can lead to constipation.

Not getting enough exercise can lead to constipation in all ages, but this is especially pronounced in older adults who have decreased activity levels or may be confined to a bed or chair during illness or after surgery.

Many people over the age of 65 take medications that can cause constipation, including some pain medications, aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antidepressants, and calcium and iron supplements.

Some medical conditions known to cause constipation may be more common in older adults, including diabetes, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and more.

Some ailments such as hemorrhoids (bleeding piles), fecal impaction, rectal prolapse and anal fissures can result from passing hard stools. These conditions may require medical treatment, and in extreme cases, may call for surgery.3

In some cases, chronic constipation may be a symptom of more serious issues, such as colon cancer. So it’s important to talk to your doctor if you have:4

  • Blood in your stool
  • Bouts of constipation alternating with diarrhea
  • Thin, pencil-like stools
  • Severe stomach pains
  • Pain in your rectum
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Tried lifestyle changes and/or laxatives, but they are not working

Some lifestyle measures may help, including eating more fiber, drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day and increasing physical activity.

In addition, studies have shown that most people with regular bowel patterns pass stool at approximately the same time every day. So it may help to try having a bowel movement first thing in the morning when the bowel is more active, and within 30 minutes after meals to take advantage of your colon’s natural tendency to push out a stool after eating.

If lifestyle changes don’t work, be sure to talk to your doctor about laxatives, biofeedback and other treatments that may help.

1. National Institute on Aging. Age Page: Concerned About Constipation? Accessed August 31, 2014.
2. JBI. Management of constipation in older adults. Best Practice. 12(7) 2008. Accessed August 31, 2014.
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing House (NDDIC). Constipation. Accessed August 31, 2014.
4. National Institutes of Health. MedlinePlus. Constipation. Accessed August 31, 2014.
5. Hsieh C. Treatment of constipation in older patients. Am Fam Physician. 2005 Dec 1;72(11):2277-2284. Accessed August 31, 2014.

Information provided is for general background purposes and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment by a trained professional. You should always consult your physician about any healthcare questions you may have, especially before trying a new medication, diet, fitness program, or approach to healthcare issues.
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