Lactose Intolerance and Aging: Managing Digestive Health in Older Adults

Lactose Intolerance Lactose intolerance is a common digestive issue that affects people of all ages. However, it becomes more prevalent and challenging to manage as individuals grow older.

In this article, we will explore what lactose intolerance is, how it develops, why it is more common in older adults, its symptoms, foods to avoid, and essential tips for managing this condition in the senior population.

What is Lactose Intolerance?


Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder characterized by the body’s inability to properly digest lactose.

Lactose is a type of sugar. It occurs naturally in milk and dairy products.

This condition occurs when the small intestine doesn’t produce enough lactase, an enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose into simpler sugars that can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

How Does Lactose Intolerance Develop?

Lactose intolerance can develop for various reasons. In most cases, it is a result of the natural aging process.

As people age, their bodies may produce less lactase. This leads to a reduction in the digestive system’s ability to digest lactose. However, lactose intolerance can also occur due to other factors, such as genetics, illness, or injury to the small intestine.

Why Is Lactose Intolerance More Common in Older Adults?

Lactose intolerance is more prevalent in older adults due to several factors:

Age-Related Lactase Decline

One of the primary reasons for the higher prevalence of lactose intolerance in older adults is the natural decline in lactase production that accompanies aging.

Lactase is the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose into simpler sugars, allowing for proper absorption in the small intestine.

During infancy, lactase production is at its peak to facilitate the digestion of breast milk or formula. However, as individuals transition to solid foods and grow older, the body may gradually produce less lactase.

This age-related decline in lactase production means that older adults have a reduced capacity to digest lactose effectively. As a result, lactose-containing foods can trigger a range of uncomfortable digestive symptoms, such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.

Reduced Digestive Efficiency

Aging can also bring about changes in digestive efficiency.

Older adults may experience slower digestion and motility in the gastrointestinal tract, making it harder for the body to process lactose-rich foods. This sluggishness in the digestive process can lead to an increased likelihood of lactose intolerance symptoms.

Furthermore, the natural aging process can result in alterations in gut function, including changes in the composition of gut microbiota. These shifts in the microbial balance within the digestive system can impact the body’s ability to break down and absorb lactose effectively.

Gut Health Changes

The gastrointestinal tract undergoes various changes as individuals age. These changes can affect the body’s response to lactose consumption. For instance, older adults may experience thinning of the intestinal lining, reduced blood flow to the gut, and alterations in the structure and function of the digestive organs.

Such changes can make the digestive system more susceptible to the effects of lactose intolerance, as the limited surface area available for nutrient absorption may struggle to handle lactose-containing foods.

Additionally, these age-related gut health changes can contribute to increased sensitivity to lactose, exacerbating the severity of symptoms when lactose is consumed.

Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance can manifest with various symptoms, which can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include:

These symptoms typically occur within a few hours after consuming lactose-containing foods or beverages.

What Foods Should You Avoid If You Are Lactose Intolerant?

Managing lactose intolerance involves making dietary choices to minimize symptoms. It’s essential to avoid or limit foods high in lactose, including:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Ice cream
  • Butter
  • Cream-based soups and sauces

Reading food labels can help identify hidden sources of lactose, such as whey, curds, dry milk solids, and non-fat dry milk powder.

Tips for Managing Lactose Intolerance in Older Adults

Dietary Modifications

1. Choose Lactose-Free Alternatives: Opt for lactose-free dairy products like lactose-free milk or dairy-free options like almond milk, soy milk, or coconut yogurt.
2. Gradual Introduction: Some individuals with lactose intolerance are able to tolerate lactose so long as it is present in small amounts. Gradually introduce dairy back into your diet to determine your tolerance level.
3. Enzyme Supplements: Over-the-counter lactase enzyme supplements can help digest lactose more efficiently when taken before consuming dairy.

Nutritional Considerations

1. Calcium-Rich Foods: Replace lost calcium by incorporating non-dairy sources such as leafy greens, almonds, and fortified foods like orange juice and cereals.
2. Vitamin D: Ensure adequate vitamin D intake through sunlight exposure or supplements to aid calcium absorption.

Can One Still Consume Dairy Food?

While some individuals with lactose intolerance may need to avoid dairy altogether, others can tolerate certain dairy products or lactose-free options. Experimenting and monitoring how your body responds is crucial to finding the right balance.

How Can One Get Calcium if They Have Lactose Intolerance?


Maintaining sufficient calcium intake is vital for bone health. Besides the non-dairy sources mentioned earlier, calcium supplements may be necessary. Consult with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to determine your specific calcium needs and supplements if required.


Lactose intolerance is prevalent, especially among older adults, due to age-related changes in lactase production and digestive efficiency.

Managing this condition involves making informed dietary choices, avoiding high-lactose foods, and exploring alternative calcium sources. With the right strategies and guidance, older adults can lead a healthy and symptom-free life despite lactose intolerance. It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to develop a personalized plan that meets your nutritional needs and digestive health goals.

Author Bio

Devon Andre has been involved in the health and dietary supplement industry for a number of years. Devon has written extensively for Bel Marra Health. He has a Bachelor of Forensic Science from the University of Windsor, and went on to complete a Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh. Devon is keenly aware of trends and new developments in the area of health and wellness. He embraces an active lifestyle combining diet, exercise and healthy choices. By working to inform readers of the options available to them, he hopes to improve their health and quality of life.


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