Chronic inflammatory bowel conditions like ulcerative colitis become increasingly common throughout adulthood, but this condition is being noticed more often in the 60-and-older crowd. Research also points to a huge connection between gut health and overall health.

In this article, you’ll learn what causes colitis and why it’s more common in older adults, as well as how to treat this condition and how you can support loved ones as they navigate life with colitis.

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammatory bowel condition that can affect people of any age but typically appears between the ages of 15 and 30. But the incidences of older adults who are newly diagnosed with this condition are on the rise.

For people in the 15 to 30 group,genetics and family history appear to play a larger role in the development of ulcerative colitis, whereas environmental and lifestyle factors appear to be the cause for more people diagnosed later in life.

By definition, ulcerative colitis develops because of a faulty immune response that triggers inflammation and the formation of ulcers in the large intestines.

There are lots of things that can contribute to the development of this condition, but the following issues in older adults may increase the risk even more:

Is ulcerative colitis common in the elderly?

Older adults are not the majority group when it comes to ulcerative colitis, but some reports suggest the number of people with geriatric ulcerative colitis is on the rise.

One 2020 report revealed that:

  • 25 to 35 percent of people with inflammatory bowel conditions were diagnosed at age 60 or older
  • 15 percent of those people were diagnosed at older ages

Roughly 3 to 17 out of every 100,000 adults over the age of 60 are believed to develop ulcerative colitis.

There are some differences in how ulcerative colitis appears in new cases diagnosed at age 60 and beyond compared to those cases diagnosed in the first few decades of life.

Younger people who are diagnosed with ulcerative colitis usually experience more small bowel and upper gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal pain and diarrhea. Older people diagnosed with ulcerative colitis often report symptoms like anemia and weight loss. Another consistent sign of UC is chronic inflammation of the colon.

Does ulcerative colitis get worse with age?

While many conditions do get increasingly worse with age, it appears as though new-onset ulcerative colitis diagnosed in older adults is usually milder than when it’s diagnosed in younger people.

Generally, older adults have more subtle symptoms of ulcerative colitis than their younger counterparts. But this milder presentation could contribute to delays in diagnosing the condition.

Older adults diagnosed with ulcerative colitis are more likely to experience other forms of inflammatory bowel disease and other non-gastrointestinal chronic health problems.

According to one report, it takes older adults about 6 years to get an accurate diagnosis of ulcerative colitis compared to the 2 years it takes younger adults.

Living with ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing for those affected by the condition. It can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bowel urgency, and no current treatments can cure this disease.

Having proper support is key to managing this condition and the flare-ups that come with chronic disease. A multidisciplinary health team that includes a gastroenterologist and nutritionist can help you create a plan that addresses symptoms and prevent flare-ups.

Complementary and alternative medicines may also be used in an effort to increase comfort and a sense of well-being, or even boost the immune system and reduce inflammation.

It can also help to make plans for when you’re out in public or traveling, like:

  • identifying nearby restroom locations
  • bringing your own hygiene products
  • download a smartphone app to help locate restrooms
  • pack extra clothing or undergarments

There are also a number of organizations, support groups, and online resources that can help guide you as you navigate ulcerative colitis. You can also talk with your doctor about local options.

Although disease severity is often milder with older adults with ulcerative colitis than younger adults, some differences in symptoms can impact what treatments are offered.

Older adults are more likely to undergo surgery as a treatment option because of the increased frequency of intestinal complications at advanced ages. Examples of intestinal problems more commonly seen in older adults with ulcerative colitis include:

There are several medications that may be used, too, but polypharmacy and drug interactions are a major concern in older adults. Some medications that might be used to treat ulcerative colitis in older people include:

Caring for someone with ulcerative colitis

The person diagnosed with ulcerative colitis isn’t the only one who feels the effects of this condition.

According to one report, nearly 90 percent of caregivers of people with colitis communicate with healthcare teams about their loved one’s care, and 73 percent manage medications. During this time, an estimated 81 percent of caregivers still work full-time or part-time, too.

It’s important to take care of yourself, too, if you’re a caregiver. Establish an open line of communication with healthcare teams, and involve other caregivers when possible.

Sign up for any support services you and your family may qualify for, and consider respite care when you need a break.

If you’re having trouble handling the responsibility of caregiving, or you’re having trouble caring for yourself while also being a caregiver for someone else, talk with your doctor about local and national resources and programs that can help. Examples include:

Ulcerative colitis can develop at any age, but decreased immune system function, other chronic illnesses, and multiple medications can increase the risk for older adults.

The symptoms of ulcerative colitis are often milder when the condition appears later in life, but complications can be more severe leaving surgery as a top treatment option.

If you have ulcerative colitis or care for someone who does, preparation and support are key to managing the condition. Talk with your doctor about local resources and support organizations that can help you thrive.