Gastroesophageal reflux disease—or GERD—is the most common upper gastrointestinal disease found in older adults. For the elderly, the symptoms of GERD may be less present, though the disease may be more severe. Below, we will examine the symptoms, side effects and treatment options of gastroesophageal reflux disease in older adults.

What is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic condition that occurs when a weakened lower esophageal sphincter allows stomach acid to regularly back up into a person’s esophagus, causing uncomfortable symptoms that can interfere with his or her quality of life. The main symptom of GERD is heartburn, which causes an uncomfortable burning sensation in the lower chest above the abdomen, but over time GERD can cause additional complications and more serious issues.

What causes GERD?

While intermittent acid reflux or heartburn is common due to overeating or reactions to certain foods, chronic heartburn or acid reflux, known as GERD, is caused by a physical abnormality with the lower esophageal sphincter, which can be exacerbated by certain lifestyle habits or risk factors. GERD is more prevalent in people who are overweight, smokers, pregnant women and those taking certain medications that can have side effects.

What are the symptoms of GERD?

As mentioned above, the main symptom of GERD is heartburn. Heartburn is an uncomfortable burning sensation which can be augmented by eating certain foods or overeating and worsened by certain movements of the body or after meals. Although heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, everything varies based on the patient. Some patients with GERD won’t experience heartburn, but rather may experience different symptoms or no symptoms at all. In the elderly, especially, heartburn is not prevalent; instead they will show symptoms in their throat, mouth or lungs. Other signs of GERD include: nausea or vomiting, difficulty swallowing, tooth wear or decay, bad breath, respiratory issues or inexplicable weight loss.

Elderly people with existing chronic conditions are also more likely to develop GERD because many of the prescriptions they are prescribed for these conditions can affect the gastrointestinal tract and aid in the development of GERD.  

How can I find a GERD treatment?

Unfortunately, the treatments for elderly people with GERD differ from those under the age of 65. Some elderly people do not produce stomach acid, so over-the-counter antacid medications will do little to alleviate symptoms. Older adults with GERD should look first and foremost to make simple everyday lifestyle changes to lessen the effects of GERD. These include:

-        Avoiding foods that trigger GERD

-        Quitting smoking

-        Eating smaller meals

-        Do not lie down immediately after eating

If the symptoms persist, as they often will in more serious cases of GERD, many doctors will recommend surgery to ensure a senior’s GERD does not worsen or cause additional complications like esophagitis, ulcers, cancer, bleeding or esophageal scarring. One common option for GERD surgery is laparoscopic anti-reflux surgery (also referred to as Nissen fundoplication). This is a minimally invasive surgery that corrects GERD using a valve mechanism at the base of the esophagus. Alternative less invasive procedures that we also offer at Tampa Bay Reflux Center are TIF/Esophyx and LINX.  

While symptoms of GERD may not be apparent in older adults, the “ghost” disease can be more severe in the elderly. If you suspect you have GERD or have been diagnosed with severe GERD, make an appointment with your doctor and discuss the options and benefits of GERD treatment.