Intestinal malabsorption in the elderly

Dig Dis. 2007;25(2):144-50. doi: 10.1159/000099479.


Background: Intestinal malabsorption in the elderly is infrequent, and clinical features are muted so that the diagnosis is often missed. Physiologic changes with aging are restricted to altered absorption of calcium and perhaps zinc and magnesium; however, achlorhydria can lead to impaired absorption of vitamin B(12), folic acid, and calcium.

Methods and results: Small bowel bacterial overgrowth occurs more commonly in elderly than in younger patients, accompanying gastric hypochlorhydria, altered intestinal motor activity, or diseases such as Parkinson's disease. Changes in pancreatic anatomy and secretion occur but are insufficient to produce macronutrient malabsorption. In addition to pancreatic cancer and pancreatic stones, older patients may present with severe pancreatic insufficiency of unknown etiology. Celiac disease is recognized as very common at all ages and may not become evident until late in life. Manifestations of celiac disease in the elderly are occult and the diagnosis often is not considered until serologic tests are performed and confirmed by upper small intestinal biopsy. Associated intestinal lymphoma, esophageal carcinoma, intestinal pseudo-obstruction, and splenic atrophy may be more common in the elderly. Treatment of older patients with celiac disease with a gluten-free diet may be difficult, and intensive vitamin and micronutrient replacement is mandatory. A pragmatic approach to the evaluation of malabsorption in elderly patients is discussed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Celiac Disease / complications*
  • Celiac Disease / epidemiology
  • Celiac Disease / therapy
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Diarrhea / complications
  • Diarrhea / epidemiology
  • Diarrhea / therapy
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Endoscopy, Gastrointestinal
  • Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency / complications*
  • Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency / epidemiology
  • Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency / therapy
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Intestinal Diseases / complications*
  • Intestinal Diseases / epidemiology
  • Intestinal Diseases / therapy
  • Malabsorption Syndromes / epidemiology
  • Malabsorption Syndromes / etiology*
  • Malabsorption Syndromes / therapy
  • Prognosis
  • Rats
  • Risk Assessment
  • Survival Analysis