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Senior Health: Good Digestion Critical to Good Health

By , 6:52 pm on

“Listen to your gut… my gut instinct…it got me right in the gut.” Our “guts” are pretty important to us; the older a person, the more important.

When I heard Dr. Elizabeth Harlow, a geriatric physician at UNMC in Omaha say “Healthy longevity relates directly to how well our bowels are working,” I was certain I had heard her wrong. Didn’t she mean to say “nutrition, exercise, mental sharpness, and social ties?”  Facing a serious change in my ideas on caring for seniors, I listened with laser-like focus to her presentation. Her key points:

Properly functioning digestion is crucial to an older adult’s health and happiness.

  • Non-functioning bowels can make a person house-bound and prevent thinking or doing anything else.

Older adults are very susceptible to bowel problems.

  • Inactivity causes bowels to function poorly because the system needs core muscles to move and support the movement of waste through the intestines.

Typical American diets tend to be low in fiber and exacerbate the problems of inactivity.

  • Fiber helps push food and then waste products through our digestive systems, helping the system work quickly and efficiently.  (Most humans need a daily bowel movement.)

Dr. Harlow focused her talk on bowels since they are an issue for all her patients and are a serious obstacle to their good health. Her solutions:

Diet and exercise are often better than medication.*

  • Eat fiber rich foods like:
    • Leafy greens (kale and spinach)
    • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage)
    • Beans, split peas, and lentils
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Apples, pears, and berries, with their skins on.
    • Dried fruits (yes, the dreaded dried plum: the prune)
    • Whole grains, including non-wheat options like quinoa and brown rice
    • Nuts and seeds, such as raw and unsalted or sweetened almonds and flax seeds
    • Drink water, 8 glasses a day
    • Limit red meat to 2x per week
    • Get moving: walking is a great way for seniors and older adults to add moderate exercise to their lives

What if the older adult in your life has limited mobility making exercise difficult, takes a lot of medications which may cause constipation, can’t tolerate raw cabbage, and refuses to eat whole grains?  Dr. Harlow recommends a smoothie.  Her “miracle cure” is a prune smoothie made with active cultures yogurt.  She says they taste great (and they do!) and actually work.

Prune Smoothie Recipe (1 serving, from Food and Wine)

3 pitted prunes

3/4 cup apple cider or apple juice

1/4 cup nonfat vanilla yogurt with active cultures

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup crushed ice


In a small bowl, cover the prunes with hot water and let stand until plump, about 15 minutes.  Drain the prunes and let cool.

In a blender, combine the prunes with the remaining ingredients and puree until smooth.

Sometimes bowel issues are more than constipation.  Check with a doctor if the condition persists for more than two weeks after incorporating the above lifestyle and dietary changes.

With relief, I realized everything Dr. Harlow said tied in with Home Care Assistance’s Balanced Care MethodTM, which encourages healthy longevity in seniors through whole-person wellness, beginning with good nutrition and exercise.  Her angle was just a little different.

Other sources: Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, Digestive Center for Women in Washington, D.C., and University of Michigan, Medical Center.

*For an older adult, a doctor should approve all changes to diet or fluid intake.

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