Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD is the most common upper gastrointestinal problem seen in physician’s offices today. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of adults have symptoms of GERD at least once a week, while 15 to 40 percent have symptoms at least once a month. Several studies have shown that the frequency of GERD symptoms and complications are significantly higher in the elderly. GERD is often much more serious among seniors and increases their complication rate.
GERD occurs when the esophageal tube between the mouth and the stomach is damaged or is being damaged. Typically, the muscular valve at the bottom of the esophagus ensures that what has entered the stomach stays there. When a person swallows, this valve opens and lets the food or beverage inside and then closes. When this valve weakens or relaxes abnormally, reflux occurs. The contents of the stomach, acid and/or enzymes, then causes injury to the lining of the esophagus and causes a burning sensation.
Some of the complications inherent in GERD are a defective anti-reflux barrier, or abnormal esophageal clearance, which means the function of the esophagus does not protect the person from reflux. They may or may not feel the symptoms, because after years of acid reflux, GERD can shut off pain receptors. Elderly people do not produce as much stomach acid as younger people, which means that antacid medications will not alleviate symptoms as easily, if at all (stomach acid is necessary to dissolve antacids).
There are many symptoms of GERD and both seniors and caregivers should be aware of them. They range from fairly common symptoms to severe ones that require seeing a doctor. Heartburn, nausea, a bitter taste in the mouth, pain when swallowing, or food getting stuck while swallowing are all common symptoms. However, if symptoms such as unintentional weight loss, black tarry stools rectal bleeding, vomiting with or without blood, and/or chest pain occur, those are red flags and a physician should be contacted immediately. GERD symptoms can indicate heart disease.
If over the counter medications do not ease the pain for less-severe GERD symptoms, a doctor should be contacted. For example, contact a doctor if antacids are taken frequently but do not ease the pain, if symptoms occur more than three times per week, or if symptoms occur for a long period of time (years). Diagnostic tests can pinpoint exactly what is happening in the body, why food is being regurgitated, or why there is blood in the stool, and lead to the proper medical treatment.
Seeing a doctor can help to find answers to the GERD problem. Quitting smoking will help prevent further pain. It’s important to avoid trigger foods which cause heartburn. Encourage seniors who suffer from GERD to eat small but frequent meals and do not lie down within two hours of a meal. Chewing gum will increase saliva production, further reducing pain on the lining of the esophagus. GERD can be treated and for most people lifestyle changes can do the trick.