You may have noticed more persistent heartburn as you’ve gotten older, even though you have no other serious medical problems. Age may make the occasional midnight snack is a bad idea, or having spicy burritos once in a while may begin to cause heartburn flare-ups. This isn’t your imagination–it is true that heartburn does worsen as you age. The most important thing concerning heartburn when you're older, however, is to realize the difference between when it’s just an occasional annoyance and when you should see the doctor. Read on to learn more about heartburn, acid reflux, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and why some symptoms worsen with age.
More Frequent Heartburn with Age
There are a few different reasons why heartburn becomes more severe with age. One of the reasons has to do with the weakening of muscles. Not only do muscles in our arms and legs weaken with age, but our internal muscles do as well. The muscle responsible for heartburn and GERD, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), is a muscle between the stomach and esophagus. When it is weak, acid can escape the stomach and get into the esophagus, causing heartburn. Frequent occurrences of this can often be classified as reflux or GERD.
Weight gain is perhaps the number one cause of heartburn across all age groups; however, as weight gain is common with aging, it is a primary reason heartburn episodes increase in older age groups. Doctors recommend eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and keeping BMI in the normal (below overweight) range.
Medications can also cause heartburn. As patients get older, they may find they’re on more medications, such as antidepressants and blood pressure medications. Drugs in these medication classes can cause frequent heartburn. Hiatal hernia (the pushing of the stomach into the upper chest cavity), which is common in older patients, is also strongly correlated with frequent heartburn.
Heartburn vs. GERD
The terms “heartburn” and “GERD” are often used interchangeably, although they are not the same thing. Heartburn is actually a symptom of GERD. An occasional episode of heartburn by itself is not necessarily indicative of a medical problem. Heartburn, that has you reaching for over the counter remedies more than twice per week, should be seen by your Carolina Digestive physician.
When your LES muscle is substantially weakened, acid from your stomach can travel into your esophagus–this is known as acid reflux. Other symptoms of acid reflux include persistent cough, sore throat, and a bitter/sour taste in the mouth. Acid reflux can occur occasionally and can be remedied with over-the-counter antacids.
Acid reflux that occurs twice or more in a week may be indicative of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The frequency of acid coming up into the esophagus can destroy the lining of the esophagus, which is related to esophageal cancer in extreme cases. If you suspect that you have GERD, you should consult a physician. Other symptoms of GERD besides heartburn include a feeling of food/drink coming back up into the mouth, damage to tooth enamel from acid, chest pain, and trouble swallowing. It is especially important for men to consult their physician if they believe they have GERD because of a very serious condition known as Barrett’s esophagus.
If you feel you are suffering from frequent acid reflux or GERD, the best thing to do is to consult your doctor for care. However, it is possible to keep occasional heartburn and acid reflux symptoms at bay with some lifestyle changes. Two things that exacerbate heartburn include smoking and drinking alcohol, so patients are advised to quit smoking and drink alcohol only in moderation.
Weight gain is also the number one reason for frequent heartburn, so patients should keep their weight at normal levels, exercising regularly. Patients can also refrain from lying down immediately after eating, eating late at night, and regularly eating spicy foods, all of which can cause occasional heartburn.
If you believe you have frequent acid reflux or are suffering from GERD, book an appointment at Carolina Digestive today to talk to a physician. With eight separate office locations, we can help you with all of your GI needs, as well as address any weight loss concerns you may have.