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Seniors: What to do about constipation

There are a number of possible causes for constipation, and a variety of ways to get relief.

How regular is regular?

Older people are more likely than young people to have constipation. Consequently, many seniors worry that they are not having enough bowel movements.

But regularity differs from person to person. There is no right number of daily or weekly bowel movements for everyone, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Asking these questions can help you determine if you are truly constipated:

  • Do you often have fewer than three bowel movements per week?
  • Do you usually have a hard time passing stools?
  • Are your stools often lumpy or hard?
  • Do you have a feeling of being blocked or not emptying your bowels?

If you answered "yes" to one or more of these questions, you may have a problem. If not, there's likely nothing to worry about.

Causes of constipation

According to the NIA, constipation means having fewer bowel movements than usual and having difficulty when you do have bowel movements.

Possible causes of constipation include poor diet, insufficient fluids or misuse of laxatives.

Some medications also may cause constipation, including antidepressants; some painkillers; antacids containing aluminum or calcium; antihistamines; diuretics; and medicines for Parkinson's disease.

Diet is an influence

A lack of high-fiber items, including vegetables, fruits and whole grains, can contribute to constipation. So can eating a lot of high-fat items, such as meats, dairy products and rich desserts.

Eating more fiber can help prevent constipation, according to some studies.

Lay off the laxatives

While laxatives may help you if you have constipation, the NIA doesn't recommend using them regularly. The body can come to rely on laxatives to bring on bowel movements.

Diarrhea is a common side effect of using laxatives too frequently.

Enemas also can cause you to lose normal bowel function, according to the NIA.

Other causes

The NIA says other factors such as lack of exercise or lengthy bed rest because of an illness or accident also can contribute to constipation.

In such cases, becoming more active may help you overcome constipation.

People also can become constipated if they hold their bowel movements for too long; for example, when a person waits to use the bathroom until he or she is home instead of using a public restroom.

Intestinal abnormalities or blockages also can be a cause. A doctor can conduct tests for such problems and should be able to treat them.

Home remedies

If a doctor rules out a serious cause for your constipation, he or she might recommend that you:

  • Eat more fruits or vegetables (cooked or raw) along with more whole-grain cereals and breads. Dried fruit such as apricots, prunes and figs are good high-fiber fruits, according to the NIA.
  • Be sure to get enough fluids, especially water, every day. Check with your doctor, though, if you've been told to limit how much you drink.
  • Add small amounts of unprocessed bran to baked goods, cereals and fruit. Bran can make some people feel bloated and gassy, so add it to your diet slowly and in very small amounts.
  • Be more active.

A final word

Remember, what's regular varies from person to person. If you have regularly occurring bowel movements—whether two times a day or three times a week—without pain, you're probably fine.

Reviewed 8/9/2023

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