Irritable bowel syndrome, commonly referred to as IBS, is a condition in which multiple symptoms can appear together, creating recurring pain in the abdominal area and even causing bowel dysfunction. Common side effects can include diarrhea, constipation, or both scenarios. And often, those symptoms can persist even without creating further damage to the digestive tract.

While IBS is an uncomfortable condition, it’s not directly linked with more serious diseases like cancer. Often it can be managed through medical interventions, dietary shifts, lifestyle changes, stress management, or a combination thereof.

Keep reading to learn more of what we know about how IBS functions in older populations.

To date, there still isn’t a definitive answer regarding a single cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) specifically in older populations. Several preliminary studies have offered a few working theories.

A potential link between aging and IBS

Brain atrophy is a normal part of brain growth. The brain contains both gray and white matter, with gray matter volume (GMV) decreasing significantly beginning in our 20s and continuing throughout our 70s. A 2018 study found a link between abnormalities in gray matter density observed through MRIs and abnormal pain-related activation in IBS patients.

Specifically, the researchers found a connection — through the review of participant MRIs in their study as well as MRIs from other chronic pain studies — between decreased gray matter density and patients experiencing chronic pain when compared to the control participants. Not only did this impact those diagnosed with IBS, but also individuals with vulvodynia (or pain in the vulva).

By further reviewing the 2018 study participant group, researchers also found abnormalities in the white matter volume (WMV). However, confirming a link between WMV and IBS still needs further investigation. More importantly, researchers noted that it’s unclear whether a decline in GMV can be considered a risk factor for IBS or a result of it.

Common risk factors for IBS

Regardless of age, multiple scenarios can contribute to this condition. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), people with IBS tend to have one or more of these common underlying factors:

  • digestive tract bacterial infections
  • bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine
  • genetic predisposition to developing IBS
  • food sensitivities or intolerances that can create digestive upset
  • stressful early life events like physical or sexual abuse
  • mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and even somatic symptom disorder

Is irritable bowel syndrome common in the elderly?

Once thought to be a condition found solely in younger populations, experts now know that IBS can be present in the elderly.

However, the rate of diagnosis for the elderly is similar to other age groups. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), roughly 10% to 20% of older adults experience symptoms consistent with an IBS diagnosis.

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Although the cause of IBS in older adults isn’t well known, the symptoms tend to be the same in younger adults. The most common symptoms include abdominal pain that’s usually related to bowel movements, diarrhea, and constipation. However other symptoms can include:

  • feeling like bowel movements aren’t finished
  • whitish mucus in stool
  • bloating
  • nausea

There are multiple approaches to treating IBS — across all demographics. For most people, a multifaceted strategy is needed to control IBS symptoms and alleviate discomfort.

This can include dietary changes, stress management, lifestyle changes, and in some cases, prescription medicine.

While most treatment methods are similar for younger populations, treatment for older adults will usually focus more on lifestyle and dietary changes, as well as incorporating psychological therapy and support.

Medications to treat IBS

Of all the methods for treating IBS, prescribing medications is usually cautioned against for older adults. This is because there’s often a heightened risk of side effects or even interactions with other prescribed drugs.

However, over-the-counter (OTC) medications to manage symptoms such as loperamide (Imodium) or even laxatives to soften stool might be recommended. Likewise, your doctor might recommend probiotics as well as coated peppermint oil capsules.

If your doctor does prescribe medication — such as Bentyl — for your IBS symptoms, follow their instructions carefully. Talk with your doctor about any other medications, vitamins, or fiber supplements that you’re taking. They’ll be able to design a schedule that avoids medication interactions.

Stress reduction

There’s proof that IBS has a strong brain-gut connection. This means that situations that impact your mood can directly manifest throughout your body — but specifically your digestive system.

And for many people with IBS, flare-ups can often be linked to specific high-stress situations. Learning to better manage stress through cognitive therapy or even mindfulness techniques can aid in reducing the body’s reaction to those experiences, and limiting IBS symptoms.

Talk with your doctor or therapist about the best ways to help manage your stress and reduce your IBS symptoms.

Because a common risk factor for IBS includes previous food sensitivities, reviewing and adjusting dietary choices might be one of the best steps you can do to ease symptoms.

Along with avoiding known triggers, your doctor or dietitian might recommend that you eat more fiber to control constipation or avoid gluten because it’s a known irritant even for people that don’t have celiac disease.

Consider a low FODMAP diet

Another option for many IBS patients is adopting a low FODMAP diet. FODMAP stands for fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols. They’re short-chain carbohydrates that are digestion-resistant. And since they travel to the far end of your intestines, they serve as fuel for bacteria naturally found in your gut.

Not all IBS patients experience FODMAP sensitivity, but often, FODMAPs can cause IBS symptoms and draw liquids that can lead to diarrhea.

Common FODMAPs that can trigger symptoms include:

  • fructose sugar, found in many fruits and vegetables as well as table sugar
  • lactose from dairy products
  • fructans, a substance found in many grains
  • galactans found in legumes
  • polyols, a sugar alcohol found in many sugar substitutes as well as some fruits and vegetables

Research has found that opting for a low FODMAP diet can be beneficial in as many as 75% of people with IBS — which can lead to improved quality of life.


Most people are familiar with probiotics as a stand-alone supplement or ingredient in foods that can aid in gut health. Since several factors can contribute to IBS — with small-bowel bacterial overgrowth being one of them — probiotics may help to maintain healthy bacteria levels.

Additionally, a 2010 study published in the Gastroenterology & Hepatology Journal noted that probiotics can improve the barrier function of the digestive tract by boosting the mucus lining. Meanwhile, another 2003 study that followed 25 IBS patients found that those who consumed probiotics reported less bloating.

Living with IBS

No matter what your age is, living with IBS can be stressful and take its toll on your mental health — which of course, can make your IBS symptoms worse.

To achieve your best quality of life, take advantage of the resources available to you. Talk with your doctor about local support groups, or try any of these online resources:

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IBS can be an uncomfortable condition to live with, and can also impact your quality of life and mental health if left untreated. This digestive issue usually carries the same symptoms that are seen in younger people.

While the cause of IBS in older people is still debatable, experts agree that a holistic approach — including dietary and lifestyle changes, stress management, psychological therapies, and medication if needed — is essential to control symptoms and improve your outlook.