The treatment of chronic constipation in elderly people: an update

Drugs Aging. 2004;21(14):911-30. doi: 10.2165/00002512-200421140-00002.


Constipation is a common problem in elderly persons, with prevalence ranging from 15% to 20% in the community-dwelling elderly population and up to 50% in some studies of nursing home residents. In these patients, constipation results from a combination of risk factors, such as reduced fibre and fluid intake, decreased physical activity resulting from chronic diseases and multiple medications. Despite the high prevalence of constipation, there is surprisingly little evidence available on which to base management decisions of this common condition. Increased fluid intake, regular physical activity and high fibre intake are usually proposed as first step nonpharmacological measures. However, adherence to these measures is limited and pharmacological treatment is frequently required. Data are too limited, especially in elderly persons, to formally recommend one class of laxatives over another or one agent over another within each class. However, bulk-forming and osmotic laxatives are usually recommended as first-line agents, even though data on their effectiveness are limited. The need to maintain good hydration is a limitation in the use of bulk-forming laxatives, in particular, in frail elderly patients. In these patients, polyethylene glycol, an osmotic agent, is an attractive alternative. In addition, it has been shown to relieve faecal impaction in frail patients with neurological disease. Its cost and potential danger in patients at high risk for aspiration is, however, a limitation. Stimulant laxatives are considered mainly as an intermittent treatment in patients who do not respond to bulk-forming or osmotic laxatives. Several promising compounds such as the new serotonin 5-HT4 receptor agonists (tegaserod, prucalopride) and neurotrophin-3 (NT3) have not been adequately tested in older individuals. They are not routinely used and their role in the management of constipation in these patients will be more precisely defined in the future. Other treatment options are available (acupuncture, biofeedback, botulinum toxin and surgery), but experience with these interventions in elderly patients is limited and their indications in this population remain to be clarified. Management of constipation in elderly persons depends largely on experience and beliefs. Several new compounds seem promising but will need to be specifically tested in this population before being recommended.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged* / physiology
  • Chronic Disease
  • Constipation / diet therapy*
  • Constipation / drug therapy*
  • Constipation / physiopathology
  • Humans