No question, you’re at greater risk of getting diverticular disease as you get older. Diverticulosis, especially, is a common problem in America, reports Peter McNally, D.O, chief of gastroenterology at Evans Army Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and spokes person for the American College of Gasteroenterology.
After you cross the treacherous waters of middle age, there’s a very good chance that you’ll get diverticulosis. According to the National Digestive Disorders Clearinghouse, about half of all Americans between 60 and 80 have diverticulosis, and almost everyone over 80 does.
Some definitions: A diverticulum is a grape-size pouch or sac that protrudes from the wall of the colon (large intestine). Sacs occur in other places along the gastrointestinal tract as well, but rarely. The pouches are thought to arise from excess pressure buildup in the colon, usually due to a lack of fiber in the diet. Doctors often compare the condition to an inner tube poking through weak spots on a tire.
Typically with diverticulosis, diverticuli (small multiple pouches) appear. Once established on the colon, they’re permanent. Most people never know they have the condition, says Michael Epstein, M.D., founder of Digestive Disorders Associates in Annapolis, Maryland.
Diverticulitis occurs, though, when the diverticuli trap bits of stool or undigested food and become inflamed. This inflammation causes abdominal pain, usually around the left side of the lower abdomen. If the diverticuli become infected, the pain is accompanied by fever, nausea, vomiting, chills, and cramping. At this point, people often see their doctor, who diagnoses the disease. Because diverticulosis usually “flies below radar,” people can miss opportunities to stop its transformation, says Dr. Epstein.
Fortunately, that transition from diverticulosis to diverticulitis may not occur—the statistical likelihood is 10 to 25 percent—and you can do things to improve your odds of never developing either affliction.
Try This First
Other Wise Ways
Build a base at breakfast. Another good idea: Mix a tablespoon of powdered fiber with a glass of orange juice in the morning. “It’s a real simple, healthy way to start the day,” says Dr. McNally. Check your pharmacy shelves for powdered fiber that comes in different flavors, consistencies, and sizes, like Metamucil and Citrucel.
Investigate veggies. “In the best of all possible worlds,” says Joanne Curran-Celentano, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor of nutritional sciences at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, “you want to get a lot of fiber from vegetables” and not only because of their fiber content. Vegetables contain other desirable nutrients that are good for the body, such as cancer-fighting beta-carotene. Her favorites include kale and squash.
Subtract seeds. Doctors are currently debating the effects of seeds on diverticulosis. Some experts say that seeds of all types can aggravate the condition and lead to diverticulitis. Dr. Epstein, for instance, tells people to at least cut back on seeds as well as corn, nuts, and popcorn.
Stay active. As you age, physical activity falls off, notes Bryant Stamford, Ph.D., director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Without the benefits of exercise, the gastrointestinal tract slows down, which can make diverticular disease worse. So try to get a little bit of exercise—even if it’s just a walk around the block—every day, he suggests.