There are many wonderful things that go along with the aging process, but there are also some side effects to aging that should be monitored. As we age our digestive tract changes and symptoms should not be ignored or self-medicated with over-the-counter products, which could do more harm than good.

One of these symptoms is frequent heartburn. Doctors do not have an easy answer to why heartburn increases as we age. Theories vary from diminished muscle tone in the esophagus to medications commonly prescribed as we age. Regardless of the cause, you should recognize the symptoms and know when to seek help.

Occasional heartburn is nothing to worry about, especially if it comes after a particularly spicy or heavy meal. But if you are experiencing painful heartburn 3 or more times per week you may have a more serious issue - GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). The culprit, when discussing GERD, is the lower sphincter at the base of the esophagus.

The esophagus is a long, muscular tube which pushes along food from the mouth into the stomach. At the base of the tube is a round sphincter muscle which acts as a guard, allowing food to pass through to the stomach and stopping food and caustic stomach acid from returning into the esophagus. When that guard malfunctions acid can return, or reflux, up into the esophagus, causing a sharp burning pain. Over time the presence of acid on the sensitive tissue of the esophagus can cause scarring. Left untreated, GERD can increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer.

Other symptoms of GERD are more difficult to pinpoint and many people overlook them, not associating them with their heartburn. Those symptoms include: a persistent cough, hoarseness, asthma, and tooth decay along your back teeth. If you have any of these symptoms, you should make an appointment to see your gastroenterologist. Treating your symptoms with over the counter medications can cause problems long term, particularly if you have kidney disease.

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