When it comes to your health, how much do you think about your colon? Probably less than you should, considering its vital role in keeping your whole body healthy. As an important organ in your complex digestive system, the colon helps absorb water and minerals and eliminate waste. And just like any other organ, it’s susceptible to wear and tear over time.
Keeping your colon in good condition as you age is a blend of preventative measures like choice of diet, knowledge of your family and personal health history, and beginning regular screenings for issues that could cause colorectal cancer.
Start with a Healthy Diet
According to Dr. Asna Amin, a colorectal surgeon who just joined the team at Columbia Memorial Health, decreasing meat and increasing fluids are two changes you can make to your diet that can be very beneficial long-term.
“I’m not saying never have meat, but over time it can cause chronic inflammation of the colon,” says Amin. She says that keeping your body well hydrated will keep everything flowing and help prevent straining-related issues of the colon like constipation, hemorrhoids, and rectal prolapse.
Know Your Health History
Like other diseases, you’re more likely to be at risk for colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel conditions if someone else in your family has been diagnosed.
According to Amin, you’re also at a higher risk of colorectal cancer if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer in another part of your body. “It’s partly that your body may have a predisposition for cancer,” says Amin. “But someone recently treated with radiation for one cancer also has a weaker immune system and their body’s ability to fight other cancers is lessened.”
All About Screenings
During a colonoscopy screening, a gastroenterologist or a surgeon like Amin will look at the colon abnormalities like polyps. According to her, some medical societies are beginning to recommend colonoscopies start at age 45 rather than age 50, due in part to increasing rates of cancer.
Amin says that changes in bowel habits, like constipation, bloating then diarrhea, abdominal distention, night sweats, weight loss, or black tarry stools are signs that you should talk to your doctor about doing a screening earlier.
If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, your primary provider may recommend earlier screenings as well. The good news is that unless a screening reveals polyps or other findings, your next one won’t be for another 10 years.
If a colonoscopy does reveal abnormal polyps, Amin says you may need to receive follow up screenings every year (or possibly more infrequently) depending on your findings.
If cancer is present, your doctor will have you go through imaging to discover any spread to other parts of the body, followed by individualized treatment that might include radiation therapy to shrink any tumor or surgery to remove it. According to Amin, significant advances in surgical treatments like minimally invasive laparoscopic procedures have increased recovery time, helping you get you back onto your feet sooner after any necessary surgery.