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Does Heartburn Get Worse as You Get Older?

Does Heartburn Get Worse as You Get Older?

The difference in dealing with a hangover at age 40 vs. age 20 can be stark for many people, but alcohol isn’t the only thing that hits differently as you get older. In college you may have scarfed down pizza or Taco Bell right before bed with no heartburn or reflux, but those days may be over. Heartburn does tend to get worse with age, so let’s dig into some reasons why and how to find relief.

Something that’s out of your control is that as you age, so do the muscles in the esophagus. As the small valve-like muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter weakens over time, stomach acid backflows into the esophagus. This process is called acid reflux, whereas the feeling of acid reflux is called heartburn. GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) occurs when this backflow happens repeatedly over time. The terms reflux, heartburn and GERD are sometimes used interchangeably, but they all mean something different.

It’s also common to gain weight as you age, and it can be harder to lose it, too. Obesity increases your risk of more serious heartburn and reflux issues, like GERD. Extra weight means more pressure in the abdomen, making it more likely for stomach acid to backflow. One study found that the risk of GERD can double if your body mass index (BMI) reaches an unhealthy level.

With age likely comes more medications, but certain ones, from aspirin to antibiotics to blood pressure meds, can increase your chances of heartburn. If you find that one of your medications seems to be the culprit of your heartburn, talk to your doctor about other options.

If you’ve had a hiatal hernia, which is most common in people over 50, you may be at a higher risk for heartburn. Especially with a large hiatal hernia, food and acid can back up into the esophagus frequently, making GERD a bigger possibility.

There are things you can do to help minimize reflux and heartburn:

  • Stay at a healthy weight
  • Wait 2-3 hours after a meal before lying down
  • Avoid eating large meals and eating late at night
  • Avoid smoking and minimize alcohol consumption, as both can affect the lower esophageal sphincter’s functionality
Having acid reflux and heartburn now and then is totally normal. But, if you have it more than twice a week over several weeks and find that medications or antacids don’t help, you may need more advanced treatment. If you have chest pain, hoarseness or trouble swallowing in conjunction with acid reflux, get checked out by your doctor to see if surgery is an option for you. Learn more about Baton Rouge General's Reflux and Esophageal Disorder Clinic.