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Gallstones in seniors: everything you need to know

Whilst you can get gallstones at any age, the risk of developing gallstone disease and its complications increase with age. It is important to know the symptoms of gallstones so that you can recognise them before symptoms get worse.

Gallstones are hard, solid materials made up of cholesterol, bile, bilirubin, and other substances. They form when these substances collect in the gallbladder, which is the organ that sits below the liver. Gallstones are common amongst older adults, with approximately 25-30% of people over the age of 50 being diagnosed.

What causes gallstones?

Gallstone formation is due to a combination of genetic factors including cholesterol levels, diet, weight, and body size. There are many factors that may also contribute to the formation of gallstones, such as:

• Age – the incidence of gallstone disease increases rapidly after the age of 40.

• Obesity – obesity occurs frequently in people over the age of 60.

• High levels of cholesterol in the blood.

• Having diabetes or any other chronic illness – these increase the risk of developing gallstones and even worsen existing ones.

The symptoms of gallstones

There are a few symptoms that may indicate the presence of gallstones and gallstone disease, but some people may never experience any. The most common symptom is pain in the upper right or middle area of the abdomen which can range from mild to severe in intensity. The pain may radiate to the back, right shoulder and even the right arm. There may also be nausea, sweating and loss of appetite and a constant need to go to the toilet.

Often in patients who have frequent “gall attacks”, surgery to remove the stones or gallbladder may be recommended by your doctor.

How do you prevent gallstones in seniors?

While it is not always possible to prevent gallstones in seniors, the best way to help try and prevent them, or pain occurring from them, is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Some tips for this include:

Include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains in your daily diet.

• Avoid fatty foods such as fried foods, creamy sauces, red meats and processed meats.

• Control the amount of salt you add when cooking or eating food.

• Exercise regularly.

• Stop smoking.

• Avoid alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants such as coffee or tea. These are all associated with gallstones in susceptible people.

If you suspect that you have gallstones, it’s important to seek the advice of a professional as soon as you can. If left untreated, gallstones can cause major complications and lead to serious health conditions.

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