Bloating is one of those things that can affect you at any age, but unfortunately, it can become a whole lot more common as our bodies get older, thanks to a few key physical changes and conditions that tend to affect older adults.
We investigate those reasons here, and then offer five tips to beat the bloat.
1. A Slowed Metabolism
As we age, our metabolism slows, Dr. Lee says, which leads to slower gastrointestinal motility — the speed at which food moves through the body.
As motility reduces, the amount of gas we produce stays the same, but the rate of elimination decreases. "As we eat, things actually slow down in our intestinal tract, and as this happens, fermentation produces gases," Dr. Lee explains. "These are all normal, natural processes, but [slower motility] allows gas to accumulate more because everything is slowing down."
If we aren't passing gas as quickly as we used to, it can build up, leading to that uncomfortable bloated feeling.
2. Muscle Loss
We lose muscle mass and tone as we age. This contributes to the slowing of our metabolisms and also affects gut motility.
"Your bowels themselves have a muscular lining in them," says Richard Wender, MD, chief of family medicine and community health at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "Just like every other muscle, it just doesn't function as well in many people over time."
This puts older adults at a higher risk for constipation, which is a major cause of bloating.
As we age, we are more likely to develop chronic health conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease that require medications. Unfortunately many of these can cause digestive problems, Dr. Wender says.
"Some are diuretic (they take water away), and some of them decrease your heart rate. All of these things can contribute to constipation, which increases bloating," says Dr. Lee.
What's more, surgical procedures like hip or knee replacements require narcotic pain medication, which is a common cause of digestive problems.
And the older you are, the more likely you are to have had multiple courses of antibiotics, which kill off some of the good bacteria in your gut along with the bad bacteria they were prescribed to you for, Dr. Lee says. This good gut flora naturally helps to decrease and eliminate gas, so running low can lead to more hot air hanging out in your system and — you guessed it — more bloating.
4. Menopause and Pelvic Floor Problems
Menopause leads to further slowing of the metabolism and muscle loss.
"A lot of women don't realize that there are estrogen receptors in your bowel. At menopause (when your hormone levels change), it's not unusual to have some change in bowel function, as your gut gets used to these hormonal alterations," Dr. Wender says. "Bloating in particular is well known around menopause."
People over 40 (especially those assigned female at birth) may also suffer from pelvic floor dysfunction caused by muscle loss — particularly if they've given birth, says dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman, RD, author of The Bloated Belly Whisperer.
"There is a pretty high incidence of pelvic floor dysfunction where you can be constipated because your pelvic floor muscles don't work as well, or they're not coordinated properly," Duker Freuman says. "As they age, that can catch up with women in particular and cause incomplete defecation. This leads to constipation and bloating as well."
5. Reduced Activity
"When we're older, we tend to sit down more, walk rather than run, drive if we can avoid walking, those kind of things," says Dr. Lee. "So activity goes down and that plays a role in motility, which increases gas and bloating."
In other words, the more you move, the more your digestive system tends to move, too, and vice versa.
6. Diverticular Disease
As it ages, our colon can develop small holes or pockets in its walls called diverticula. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, many people with diverticula have no symptoms or problems, but some go on to develop diverticular disease, which can be serious. Bloating can be one of the milder symptoms.
A July 2016 study in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that diverticula were more common in people over 50.
7. Snoring and Sleep Apnea
According to the Mayo Clinic, sleep apnea is more common in older adults, as well as people who have overweight and pre-existing conditions like diabetes.
With snoring and sleep apnea, we are essentially swallowing air, Dr. Lee says. That air all has to be expelled or it becomes trapped, which can be uncomfortable.
8. Acid Reflux
"Loss of muscle tone in the stomach and esophagus as we age can lead to more incidence of acid reflux, which can sometimes cause bloating," says Duker-Freuman.
3 Tips to Get Rid of Bloating
Duker-Freuman cautions against looking for quick fixes. "There is not a one-size-fits-all solution," she says. "There is no blanket recommendation for bloating as you age or magic food for bloating. The treatment or prevention depends on why you're bloated."
With that said, here are four things you can try for a bloated belly.
1. Talk to Your Doctor
"If anyone experiences a change in bowel functioning, they should check it out with their doctor. If you have persistent systems, don't just self-diagnose," Dr. Wender says.
Your doctor can advise you on medications (never stop taking a medication without consulting your doctor first), lifestyle changes and diagnostic tests to find the root cause of your bloating and rule out something more serious.
2. Stay Regular
Avoiding constipation will reduce your chance of bloating. Many people don't realize they are constipated because frequency varies from person to person. According to the National Institute of Aging, you may be constipated if you are having fewer bowel movements than you usually do, your stool is hard and it's difficult for you to pass.
For occasional constipation, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends increasing fiber (think: fruits and vegetables), maintaining good hydration (which means drinking water throughout the day), exercising regularly and not ignoring the urge to go.
As for chronic constipation, that's something you should investigate with your doctor.
3. Keep Active
Staying active helps speed up gut motility and lowers your risk of chronic diseases that might require medications.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week.
While there are not many rigorous studies in this area, a February 2019 meta-analysis in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology found that exercise had a positive effect on constipation across the nine randomized controlled trials it analyzed.
Is This an Emergency?
- Mayo Clinic: "Belching, gas and bloating: Tips for reducing them"
- JAMA Network: "Abdominal Bloating"
- Merk Manual: "Effects of Aging on the Digestive System"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Bloating"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Common Causes of Constipation"
- Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology: "Distribution and Characteristics of Colonic Diverticula in a United States Screening Population"
- Mayo Clinic: "Sleep Apnea"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet"
- National Institute of Aging: "Concerned About Constipation?"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Constipation"
- U.S Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"