Reflux Disorders (GERD) in Seniors
If a senior loved one is complaining of heartburn, pain when swallowing, or regurgitation, they could be experiencing gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD). While many older adults can have minor heartburn or indigestion from time to time, GERD is more serious, persistent, and affects millions of seniors in the United States.
What is GERD?
GERD is a chronic condition that causes the contents of the stomach to flow back up the digestive tract and into the esophagus. When this occurs, the stomach contents can harm the lining of the esophagus and produce an uncomfortable burning sensation in the chest area.
Although it may seem like a relatively minor issue, GERD can cause significant discomfort for seniors. If left untreated, it can lead to conditions that adversely impact their quality of life.
Who is at Risk for GERD?
GERD can affect anyone, but seniors, in general, are at a higher risk due to changes in the body from aging. Risks can increase through the following conditions:
- Hiatal hernias
- Peptic ulcers
- Delayed stomach emptying
- Common medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and antidepressants
How to Tell if a Senior Has GERD
Some older adults may not be aware they have GERD. Over time, acid damage and age can lead to reduced sensation. The feeling of chest pain or heartburn may fade even though the condition worsens. However, if you know what to look out for, the signs are easy to spot.
Symptoms of GERD may include:
- A sour or bitter taste in the mouth
- A burning sensation in the chest (heartburn), usually after eating, which might be worse at night
- Food or liquid “coming back up” (regurgitating)
- Food getting stuck when swallowing
- Feeling a lump in the throat
For people with GERD who experience conditions mostly at night, symptoms may also include:
- Poor or disrupted sleep
- A chronic cough
- New or worsening asthma
GERD symptoms may also overlap with heart disease warning signs. If your loved one experiences chronic symptoms, make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis.
Other symptoms considered serious include:
- Black and tarry stool, or rectal bleeding
- Unintentional weight loss
- Vomiting, especially if it is bloody or looks like coffee grounds
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
These symptoms could indicate a serious disease. Seek medical care immediately.
How is GERD Treated?
Over-the-counter (OTC) medication and lifestyle changes are usually the first lines of treatment. If OTC or prescribed medications are unsuccessful, advanced diagnostic tests may be needed for a clearer diagnosis. For severe cases of GERD, a doctor may recommend a surgical or medical procedure.
If left untreated, GERD can lead to serious complications such as:
- Esophageal stricture
Over time, stomach acid can damage the lower esophagus and lead to the formation of scar tissue, which then narrows the food pathway. This can cause swallowing disorders for seniors.
- Esophageal ulcer
Stomach acid may erode tissue, forming an open sore or ulcer. Esophageal ulcers can be painful, bleed constantly, and lead to difficulty swallowing.
- Barrett’s esophagus
Damage from stomach acid may cause the formation of precancerous tissue in the esophagus, which is linked to an increased risk of esophageal cancer.
Visiting Angels Provides Supportive Care at Home
If older adults are having trouble managing symptoms on their own, a Visiting Angels senior care provider can provide in-home assistance through:
- Medication reminders
Many older adults may take multiple medications throughout the day, which can be overwhelming – especially for those with cognitive impairments. Our caregivers are available to help your loved one take their antacids and other medications on time through verbal reminders, medication calendars, and alarms.
- Weight and meal management
Achieving a healthy weight is encouraged for overweight patients to decrease GERD symptoms. Additionally, eating smaller meals and avoiding mealtime triggers, such as fatty or fried foods, can help manage symptoms. Our caregivers can help your loved one exercise regularly, encourage them to eat healthier portion sizes, and assist with purchasing groceries and meal prep.
- Proper sleeping habits
A senior with GERD can have increased symptoms when they sleep with their head at a low angle after eating. Our caregivers will remind your loved one to use a foam wedge to elevate their pillow.
- Developing healthy habits
Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and wearing tight clothing that compresses the stomach can all increase symptoms. Our caregivers can help older adults make healthier lifestyle choices—such as reducing smoking and drinking—to relieve symptoms.
About 20% of people in the U.S. have GERD, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. However, with proper treatment and management, symptoms of GERD can be reduced.