How does aging affect the colon?

Lawrence S. Friedman, MD
In the colon, moving one's bowels may be the most frequent gastrointestinal challenge associated with aging. The problem is usually the result of a poorly functioning or diseased large intestine. Problems with this organ can also result in diarrhea and hemorrhoids. In addition, the risk for colon cancer and polyps increases with age. In fact, one in three senior citizens has one or more polyps in the colon. That's why a screening exam called a colonoscopy (examination of colon's interior) is recommended on a regular basis after age 50. Since colon cancer evolves from polyps, removal of polyps will keep colon cancer from getting started. In general, people pass less stool after they reach age 65. In part, this can be the result of a change in diet to softer foods, a decreased appetite, or diminished muscular activity of the colon. Constipation may also be the result of a neurological problem.
Aging affects the colon in a number of ways. Just like older people are more prone to developing skin cancers through age and sun or lung cancer through age and cigarettes, the colon is also more prone to developing polyps from a poor diet that is high in fat and red meat, and low in fiber, which may progress to colon cancer.
Through repeated straining and lifting, people are more prone to hernias; the same is true in the colon, in the form of hemorrhoids and diverticulosis. If a person were to get an infection in one of these little hernias, they would develop diverticulitis, which can be very painful.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.