Lactose malabsorption in the elderly: role of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth

Scand J Gastroenterol. 2008;43(2):146-54. doi: 10.1080/00365520701676617.


Objective: The prevalence of lactose malabsorption (LM) is increased in the elderly, although the mechanisms responsible are still a matter of speculation. The objective of this study was to investigate the possible roles of reduced functional small intestinal absorptive area, lactase deficiency and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

Material and methods: Twenty Caucasian (Anglo-Celtic), asymptomatic, well-nourished, elderly volunteers (median age 79 years, range 70-94 years) with no clinically apparent predisposition to SIBO underwent a 50 g lactose breath hydrogen test (LBHT) and mannitol absorption test, the latter as an index of functional small intestinal absorptive area. Those with LM additionally underwent bacteriological assessment of small intestinal secretions and mucosal biopsy, to assess the contribution of SIBO and lactase deficiency, respectively, to the pathogenesis of LM in individual cases. The prevalence of SIBO was also determined in elderly subjects without LM. Twenty asymptomatic younger subjects (median age 29 years, age range 18-35 years) served as controls. All subjects were "hydrogen producers" in response to lactulose.

Results: LM was evident in 10/20 (50%) elderly subjects and 1/20 (5%) younger subjects (p=0.003). Mannitol absorption did not differ significantly in elderly and younger subjects or in elderly subjects with and without LM. SIBO was documented in 9/10 (90%) elderly subjects with LM; eradication was associated with resolution of LM. Lactase deficiency was evident in only one elderly subject with LM. SIBO was evident in 2/10 (20%) elderly subjects without LM (p=0.005 compared to those with LM). Lactulose breath hydrogen test identified only 2/11 (18%) elderly subjects with SIBO.

Conclusions: Increased prevalence of LM in the elderly is mostly due to clinically non-apparent SIBO, rather than mucosal factors. The lactulose breath hydrogen test cannot be relied upon to identify elderly subjects with SIBO, even in those without an anatomical predisposition.

MeSH terms

  • Age Distribution
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Breath Tests
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen / metabolism
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Intestinal Mucosa / microbiology
  • Intestine, Small / metabolism
  • Intestine, Small / microbiology*
  • Lactase / deficiency
  • Lactose* / pharmacokinetics
  • Lactulose
  • Malabsorption Syndromes / diagnosis
  • Malabsorption Syndromes / epidemiology
  • Malabsorption Syndromes / metabolism*
  • Malabsorption Syndromes / microbiology*
  • Male
  • Mannitol / pharmacokinetics
  • Prevalence
  • Reproducibility of Results


  • Mannitol
  • Lactulose
  • Hydrogen
  • Lactase
  • Lactose