It’s a cruel fact of life that your body begins to break down just about the time when you retire and have more free time to do what you want. Arthritis sets into your joints, your vision gets a little blurry, and your hearing loses its edge, and your memory wanes.
You’ve also noticed that heartburn is a frequent visitor, even though you haven’t changed your diet. Suddenly, pizza is harder to stomach, and late night meals keep you up at night chewing on antacids.
We see this a lot at Northside Gastroenterology. Dr. Ayub Hussain and our team specialize in heartburn, acid reflux, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and our aging patients throughout Katy and Cypress, Texas, often ask us if heartburn is simply an inevitable part of aging like diminished vision, hearing, memory, and mobility.
The answer is twofold: No, it’s not inevitable, but yes, you face a higher risk of getting heartburn as you age. Here’s a closer look.
The link between heartburn and acid reflux
Heartburn is a symptom of a condition called acid reflux.
Acid reflux occurs when the acidic contents of your stomach sneak past the tightly closed valve at the bottom of your esophagus and irritates the delicate lining there. Because the bottom of your esophagus is located in your chest near your heart, it got the nickname heartburn, but it has nothing to do with your ticker.
You do have a problem, however, with your lower esophageal sphincter because it’s not doing its job, which is to keep your stomach acid confined to your stomach.
In addition to causing occasional or frequent heartburn, acid reflux can graduate to a chronic condition called GERD. If you ignore these problems, you set yourself up for serious complications, including Barrett’s esophagus, which alters the lining of your esophagus and puts you at risk for cancer.
The link between heartburn and aging
If it seems like you’re experiencing heartburn more and more frequently as the years go by, you’re not imagining things. Here are four reasons aging can make you more susceptible to acid reflux and heartburn.
1. Your muscles are weaker
Studies show that muscle mass drops off considerably as you age — about 3%-5% per decade after you hit age 30. And that’s not just in your biceps and quads. All your muscles get a little weaker over time, including your lower esophageal sphincter. And if it can’t keep a tight seal, all it takes is a little extra pressure from a full tummy, tight pants, or spicy food churning in your gut to push the acid upward and cause heartburn.
2. You take more medications
We’ve listed a few of the body parts and systems that diminish over time, and you can probably name a few more. The point is that when your body stops functioning normally, you tend to need medication to address the issues.
Many medications list heartburn as a side effect. For example, some antidepressants and blood pressure medications are known to trigger acid reflux and heartburn. If this is true for you, you may be able to switch your medication.
3. You weigh more
Your aging metabolism no longer processes fats and carbs like it used to, and you may not get out and exercise as much as you did in your younger years. These factors plus dropping hormone levels can lead to weight gain as you age.
Carrying extra pounds, especially around your abdomen, puts pressure on your stomach and forces acid to push up into your esophagus. This is why many pregnant women experience heartburn more frequently as their baby grows.
4. You may have a hiatal hernia
Hiatal hernias are common in older folks. Studies estimate that about half of all people over the age of 60 have a hiatal hernia, which is a condition where the upper part of your stomach pushes through a hole in your diaphragm and into your chest cavity.
Some hiatal hernias cause no symptoms at all, or they cause minor problems, such as the increased heartburn you’ve been feeling. In this case, it may help to eat smaller meals, avoid spicy and greasy foods, cut back on alcohol, and lose weight.
Before recommending a treatment, Dr. Hussain determines the underlying cause of your heartburn. His recommendation may be as simple as changing your diet and eating habits or taking medication to resolve the problem. In severe cases, he may recommend surgical intervention.
To find out what’s behind your heartburn, schedule an appointment with Dr. Hussain by calling either of our two locations or booking online today.