Passing gas is a normal occurrence associated with gas production in the lower bowels. Sometimes though the gas can be excessive and pose a problem to a person in which case it is referred to as flatulence. It is often an embarrassing and amusing condition and is a common problem in the elderly. However, flatulence may affect any person at any time in life. In the elderly though it may be a bit more difficult to control leading to awkward social experiences. However, it should not be ignored entirely because excessive gas can sometimes be a symptom of other problems in the body.
Normal Gas in the Bowels
The proper term for gas passed through the bottom is flatus. The bowels, mainly the colon, is teeming with bacteria. These normal bowel bacteria are important for producing certain types of nutrients and for it to absorb into the body. It feeds on the waste material in the bowels and is passed out in large numbers during a bowel movement.
However, these bacteria also make large quantities of gas. Sometimes this gas may also come from the chemical processes within the bowels and even from swallowing air, although this is usually passed out with a belch. Flatus is known to have an offensive odor and may cause loud sounds as it erupts from the bowels.
Excessive Gas (Flatulence)
A person normally passes gas between 10 to 20 times a day. Often this is not even noticed. About 1,000 to 2,000 milliliters (2 to 4 pints) of gas is produced in the bowels daily. Almost all of this will be passed out within a 24 hour period. Sometimes it is retained a little longer especially in a person who is constipated. The reason why flatus sometimes becomes excessive though is not always known and is at times just a perception.
Flatulence is more likely to occur with certain bowel disorders like the stomach flu. In these cases it is short term. However, persistent flatulence may need to be investigated medically. It is known that any slowdown of the movement of food and wastes through the gut can increase the chance of excessive gas production. Furthermore any digestive problems where food is not properly digested may also be an underlying cause. Sometimes long term infections and microbe overgrowth in the bowels can also cause flatulence.
Diseases that cause flatulence
With age, the digestion often changes and an intolerance to certain types of food can develop. These irritant foods may cause flatulence, apart from those foods that are known to be naturally ‘gassy’. It may not be that the food is an irritant as is the case that gut may be unable to digest or tolerate the presence of specific substances within the foods. This digestive problem can be due to diseases of organs like the pancreas when the enzymes from the gland is either deficient or absent altogether. This is known as pancreatic exocrine insufficiency.
Another problem that is more frequently seen with aging is that the movement through the gut is slowed down. Longer periods of time in the bowel can mean that food and wastes are likely to ferment more than normal. This slowness may be seen with certain type of medication widely used for common problems in the senior years like high blood pressure. The slowness may also occur as a complication of diabetes where the nerves controlling the gut muscles becomes weak. Sometimes, however, it can be due to an obstruction in the bowel either with a twisting of the intestines or even masses like polyps or tumors.
Flatulence may also be seen with constipation. This is very common in the elderly as the gut slows down and the bowel muscles weaken thereby making it difficult to have a bowel movement. The exact cause of most cases of constipation remain unknown although high fiber diets and exercise may help to relieve it. Sometimes with age there is a weakening of the bowel wall leading to small pouches which can become infected and irritated. This is known as diverticulitis and may also cause flatulence.
With age, the ability to control the bowel function decreases particularly with certain diseases. Passing gas loudly and at inappropriate times may therefore be difficult to control. If it is excessive, however, it needs to be treated medically. First the cause needs to be diagnosed and then the appropriate treatment commenced. However, many cases of flatulence occurs for no known reason. The key to treatment in unknown cases is to avoid foods that are may increase flatulence, worsen constipation or cause bloating. Live culture yogurt may help to keep the bowel bacteria in check. Gentle exercise like a walk after the meal helps with digestion. In most cases though, it is difficult to limit persistent flatulence in the elderly without treating the root cause if it can be identified.
Last Updated: December 16th, 2011 by Chris