Aging impacts the liver in a number of ways. Though the liver’s functions remain the same over time, the liver itself undergoes a series of structural changes as time progresses.
Interestingly, the liver actually changes appearance with age. In younger individuals, the liver is generally red or light brown in color. Over time, however, the coloration of the organ changes, often becoming dark brown with age.
The liver also changes size over time. With age, the liver shrinks, and blood flow throughout the organ decreases. The average 80 year old will have only 50% of the liver cells he did at the age of 40! As such, it becomes increasingly important to take care of the liver with age.
Though these structural changes alter the liver over time, the organ remains, in many ways, fundamentally unchanged. Liver function test (LFT) results, for instance, should return fairly consistent results for healthy adults throughout the duration of their lives.
Aging can make it more difficult to manage the liver. The organ’s metabolic process generally slows with age, which may adversely affect some older adults. In a younger patient, for instance, a drug will generally be metabolized at a normal rate. This is ideal, as it allows the medication to interact with the body in an optimal manner. A more aged liver, however, may not be able to metabolize a drug at such a rapid pace. As such, the drug remains in the body longer, which often results in increased side effects. For such patients, medication dosages may need to be decreased with age.
With age, the liver’s ability to respond to stressors is reduced. Alcohol abuse, medication overdoses, and other such problems will generally cause more difficulties for older individuals than young adults. Toxic substances will often do more damage to aged livers than to young livers, and liver cells will recover from damage much more slowly. As such, it is particularly important for older adults to be careful with the substances they put into their bodies. Adults suffering from alcoholism, hepatitis, or genetic liver problems must be increasingly careful with age. Most serious cases of liver disease, including liver cancer and liver failure, develop in adults over the age of 50.
Gallstones and liver stones may become more of an issue with age. This is due to the fact that bile flow decreases in older adults. Eating lots of fresh and raw vegetables has been shown to help stimulate healthy bile flow. For older adults who are frequent gallstone sufferers, a diet full of raw, fresh foods is advisable. Avoiding excess fats, sugars, and processed foods can improve bile flow as well as overall liver health.
Though it is always important to take care of one’s liver, it is increasingly important to do so with age. By eating well, exercising, and reducing alcohol consumption, older adults can help support their liver in its everyday functioning. Doing so will significantly lower one’s risk of developing fatty liver, liver disease, or cancer.