When you were younger, you likely could go out for Mexican or have a late-night snack with no repercussions at all, but perhaps now you’re feeling some of the effects of overindulging or eating spicy food. There is no one clear age where heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) see a specific spike, but it’s a fact of life that heartburn does worsen as we get older. Read on to learn the difference between heartburn and GERD, how to manage the symptoms you have, and how to prevent heartburn from worsening.
What Are Heartburn and GERD?
Heartburn is coined such because it feels like there is a burning sensation in the area of your heart, but heartburn has nothing to do with your heart. Heartburn is due to inflammation in the lining of your esophagus. This can cause a burning sensation throughout the entire tract, which extends from your throat down past your chest. For most people, heartburn is an occasional problem which is exacerbated by spicy food, smoking, and overindulging.
Acid reflux is slightly different and has to do with the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is a muscle in the esophagus. If the LES doesn’t work correctly throughout the digestive process, it can cause frequent, painful heartburn. Other symptoms are also associated with acid reflux, such as cough, sore throat, and a sour/bitter taste in the mouth.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a form of severe and chronic acid reflux. Those who suffer from GERD are often asked to make lifestyle changes to improve their quality of life, such as quitting smoking, drinking in moderation or teetotaling, losing weight, and watching what they eat. While a mild case of heartburn is typically cured by taking an antacid or two, those with GERD often must resort to pharmacological measures to improve the problem, such as proton pump inhibitors (PPI), which block acid in the stomach. Those with symptoms of GERD (chronic reflux) should consult with a gastroenterologist, while intermittent cases of heartburn can often be managed with lifestyle changes and preventative measures.
Why Does Heartburn Increase with Age?
There are a few reasons why heartburn may increase with age. One of the reasons is the aging of muscles. One of the leading causes of acid reflux is the muscle mentioned above, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Just like muscles in your legs and arms, your internal muscles weaken with age as well. When this happens, you’re more likely to have frequent cases of reflux or heartburn. Also, medications are a big factor. As we age and are diagnosed with more minor and moderate health problems, our needs for medication increase. Many medication classes as a whole, such as antidepressants and blood pressure medications, are linked to increased heartburn.
Other factors associated with aging that can contribute to heartburn are weight gain and hiatal hernia. Many patients over 60 have a hiatal hernia, where the upper part of the stomach becomes pushed into the chest cavity, which can interfere with the esophageal tract. Weight gain throughout all age groups is associated with heartburn, but as older persons become less active, their weight begins to increase, as do bouts of heartburn.
How to Prevent Heartburn or Manage Symptoms
If you have more than two episodes of heartburn a week, you should consult a doctor, as this could be indicative of GERD. This is especially true for men over 50, as there is a rare and serious condition known as Barrett’s esophagus that is correlated with cases of heartburn.
As you can’t stop the process of aging, there are a few things you can do to ward off symptoms:
- Quit smoking completely.
- Lose weight–weight gain is the number one contributor to heartburn or GERD across all age groups.
- Do not drink alcohol, or imbibe only moderately.
- Eat smaller meals.
- Do not lie down immediately after eating.
- Elevate your bed to help prevent overnight heartburn.
If you consult a doctor, they may recommend a proton pump inhibitor to help keep symptoms at bay, but because other more serious conditions can be associated with heartburn, don’t decide to treat heartburn yourself without first consulting your doctor. If you have frequent heartburn or are experiencing other gastrointestinal disturbances, book an appointment with GI Associates today. Three separate locations and pediatric care allow us to offer you complete and total care for the entire family.