[Skip to Content]
[Skip to Content Landing]
February 12, 1996

Bowel Habit in Relation to Age and Gender: Findings From the National Health Interview Survey and Clinical Implications

Author Affiliations

From the Division on Aging, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts General Hospital/Beacon Hill Geriatric Medicine Unit and General Medicine Unit, Boston (Drs Harari and Minaker); Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Brockton/West Roxbury, Mass (Drs Harari, Gurwitz, and Minaker); and Program for the Analysis of Clinical Strategies, Gerontology Division, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston (Drs Gurwitz and Avorn and Ms Bohn).

Arch Intern Med. 1996;156(3):315-320. doi:10.1001/archinte.1996.00440030117014

Background:  Constipation is widely considered to be a common problem among the elderly, as evidenced by the high rate of laxative use in this population. Yet, age-related prevalence studies of constipation generally do not distinguish between actual alteration in bowel movement frequency and subjective self-report of constipation.

Objective:  To determine the relationship between advancing age and bowel habit.

Methods:  We employed data collected on 42375 subjects who participated in the National Health Interview Survey on Digestive Disorders based on interviews with a random nationwide sample of US households. We examined the following characteristics reported by this population according to selected age groupings by decade: constipation, levels of laxative use, and two bowel movements per week or less.

Results:  Contrary to conventional wisdom, there was no age-related increase in the proportion of subjects reporting infrequent bowel movements. Nonetheless, the prevalence of self-report of constipation increased with advancing age, with a greater proportion of women reporting this symptom than men across all age groups. Laxative use also increased substantially with aging; while women were more likely to use laxatives than men, this effect attenuated with advancing age. A U-shaped relationship was observed between advancing age and bowel habit in men and women; 5.9% of individuals younger than 40 years reported two bowel movements per week or less compared with 3.8% of those aged 60 to 69 years and 6.3% of those aged 80 years or older. This relationship persisted after adjusting for laxative use.

Conclusion:  These findings suggest that a decline in bowel movement frequency is not an invariable concomitant of aging. In elderly patients who report being constipated, it is essential to take a careful physical, Psychological, and bowel history rather than to automatically assume the need for laxative use.(Arch Intern Med. 1996;156:315-320)