A group of elderly people are looking at the camera to take a picture.

Constipation in Old Age – Causes


Constipation is a problem that we experience at every age and has a number of causes. Experts agree that old age is one of the main risk factors for constipation; thus, the incidence of constipation is significantly higher in the elderly, up to 20% in comparison to young subjects.

It is important to recognize the problem on time and not to postpone dealing with it. It is also important to establish whether we are talking about organic or functional constipation: the former is a consequence of certain diseases (diabetes, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, gluten intolerance…) or an allergy, while functional constipation is most often connected to imbalanced diet, insufficient liquid intake and other unhealthy habits. It is necessary to keep in mind that constipation is not a disease, but a symptom, which means that the most important thing is to deal with the cause of the problem, and not just eliminate the symptom.

Aging is a natural process that involves changes in organs, including those of the gastrointestinal tract.

Causes of Constipation in the Elderly

Constipation in the elderly has many possible causes. Anatomical changes in the lower gastrointestinal tract, related to aging, can contribute to slower digestion and lower water content of the stool. Neurodegenerative changes also negatively affect digestive function. Scientists have determined that at age 65 people have 37% fewer intestinal neurons in the large intestine compared to younger adults.

The woman sits on the toilet and clings to her stomach because she is closed.

The intestinal nerve system controls the contraction and expansion of intestinal muscles, which moves food through the digestive tract. Since it regulates the intensity and frequency of muscle contraction, it is not surprising that a decrease in the number of intestinal neurons results in decreased intestinal motility.

The reduced tone of intestinal muscles (intestinal atony) is generally held to be one of the main causes of chronic constipation in the elderly. It is brought about by physiological aging that sees a decrease in the intestinal muscle motor function. Furthermore, the anal sphincter muscle weakens, and the pelvic floor muscles also decline in strength.

Some studies show that the function of pelvic floor muscles deteriorate in more than 50% of the elderly. This change is most frequent in post-menopausal women, with vaginal birth injuries regarded as one probable cause.

The man sits closed on the bed and holds on to his stomach.

Constipation in old age and medications

Besides physiological causes, there are many clinical factors that are closely related to the occurrence of constipation. Older people often take medications that might lead to constipation (antacids based on aluminum and calcium, antidepressants, antihistamines, calcium supplements, some diuretics, iron supplements, etc.). Besides using medications, there are some diseases that affect older people, and which are at the same time closely related to constipation, such as type II diabetes, depression, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, multiple sclerosis, electrolyte imbalance, etc.

Changes in eating habits or a reduced intake of food, reduced physical activity, and inadequate fluid intake also lead to this common problem.

How to get rid of constipation in old age?

Treatment of constipation in the elderly requires significant caution since older patients are more sensitive to possible consequences of constipation. However, we should definitely not accept this problem as part of life since it extremely negatively affects the quality of life. So, what can be done to accelerate the digestion as much as possible?

Many different pills on a white table and hands of an elderly gentleman.

The first step in treatment of constipation in old age is arguably the change in lifestyle which should, of course, be based on a balanced diet (rich in fiber) and physical activity. In this article you can read more about effective methods of getting rid of constipation which are based on a healthy lifestyle. However, if switching to a healthier lifestyle does not help, it is worth giving osmotic laxatives a try.

Osmotic laxatives are the most suitable “first aid” in cases when even a fiber-rich diet fails to accelerate digestion. When choosing the type of a laxative, the best is to consult your doctor. He or she will be able to determine which laxative is the best for the patient based on the patient’s health condition, and especially the state of the heart and kidneys. A health care professional will also take into account other medications that the person is taking to avoid any unwanted side effects.

Discover another ally in the fight against constipation in old age:

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are the causes of constipation in older adults?

Causes of constipation in older adults are numerous. On the one hand, there are anatomic changes in the digestive tract and a weaker intestinal nervous system that contribute to a slower functioning of the entire digestive system. The experts also state a decrease in muscle tone in the intestinal wall and poor functioning of the sphincter muscle and the pelvis as one of the main causes. Also, medications and changes in lifestyle, especially reduced physical activity need to be mentioned.

2. What is the difference between organic and functional constipation?

Organic constipation happens due to various diseases of the intestines, muscles, nerves, etc., while functional constipation occurs due to an unhealthy lifestyle (imbalanced diet, lack of fluids, etc.) and is not connected to diseases.

3. Which medications can cause constipation?

We mostly find antacids with aluminum and calcium, antidepressants, antihistamines, calcium supplements, some diuretics, iron supplements, etc. among the medications that more often cause constipation.

4. Which diseases often occur in older age groups, and are connected to constipation?

We mostly connect diseases such as type II diabetes, depression, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, multiple sclerosis, electrolyte imbalance, etc. with constipation in old age.

5. How to get rid of constipation in old age?

Older people who suffer from constipation first have to change their lifestyle and include more fiber in their diet. Other healthy habits are important, too. If these methods fail, it is important to consult a doctor who will prescribe the right osmotic laxative.

Choose chapter:

How to Effectively Manage Stress through Nutrition for a Healthy Digestive System