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Published October 20, 2012, 11:35 PM

Minding Our Elders: Lactose intolerance can sneak up on seniors

DEAR READERS: Several years ago, I used this space to highlight lactose intolerance, an issue many older adults face. Due to some recent questions, I felt it was time, once again, to share some anecdotes regarding this sometimes hidden problem.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR READERS: Several years ago, I used this space to highlight lactose intolerance, an issue many older adults face. Due to some recent questions, I felt it was time, once again, to share some anecdotes regarding this sometimes hidden problem.

Many of our elders enjoy milk, ice cream and other dairy products. In general, dairy products can provide valuable nutrition and needed calories, but dairy products contain lactose, a milk sugar that requires the enzyme lactase for proper digestion. Even people who’ve enjoyed dairy products for decades can gradually lose their ability to produce enough lactase to digest milk or other dairy products. When this happens, abdominal discomfort and diarrhea can result.

My 80-year-old neighbor, for whom I was a primary caregiver years ago, provided me with some education in this area. During one of our daily chats he confided to me that he was experiencing severe diarrhea. I was concerned about the many serious health issues someone his age could have, so I scheduled an appointment for him to see his doctor. His primary physician then scheduled him for a number of tests, all of which proved negative.

Since my neighbor seemed to have no alarming medical issues, I thought that an experiment was worthwhile. Lactase drops had recently become available over the counter at the pharmacy. The only dairy product that my friend consumed regularly was milk for his cereal, so I purchased some lactase and added the appropriate number of drops to my friend’s weekly quart of milk.

Problem solved. He was able to enjoy his morning cereal and milk with no adverse effects.

Unfortunately, the source of lactose isn’t always this obvious. A reader wrote to tell me that his wife had suffered lactose intolerance for years, but had successfully worked around the problem. However, after his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she was given new medications. She then began suffering from severe diarrhea.

“After fighting the problem for many months,” he wrote, “we found out that some of the medications she is on contain lactose. Not only that, lactose is considered to be a non-active ingredient, so it is not usually listed in the ingredients.”

The reader suggested that people who suffer from lactose intolerance ask a pharmacist to check all of the ingredients in their medications, including the non-active ones. The solution for this woman was to continue to take her medications, but to take a lactase enzyme pill at the same time.

Digestive issues can be a symptom of many serious illnesses, so always check with the doctor if your elder develops diarrhea or other severe digestive problems. If no other cause for digestive discomfort is evident and the doctor doesn’t suggest lactose intolerance, bring up the possibility.

This is one of those health issues that can begin with such vague disturbances that it continues undetected for quite some time. Lactose intolerance can be managed once it’s discovered, but it may take some detective work. Remember to read labels on food items, as well. Some prepared foods also contain lactose.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

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