Lower body image of woman with stomach pain, holding stomach in bathroom

One sign that cognitive decline is getting worse: chronic constipation. According to a new study, having just one bowel movement every three days or more — instead of daily — is the equivalent cognitively to three years of aging. 

The authors say the study adds to the evidence that a healthy gut is tied to solid brain function. Previous research has shown a link between the health of our gut microbiome and body functions. Chronic constipation is linked to long-term health issues such as anxiety, depression, inflammation and hormonal imbalances.

Researchers shared the report at the Alzheimer’s Association International conference in Amsterdam. 

“Our body systems are all interconnected,” Heather M. Snyder, PhD, Alzheimer’s Association vice president of medical and scientific relations, said in a statement. “When one system is malfunctioning, it impacts other systems. When that dysfunction isn’t addressed, it can create a waterfall of consequences for the rest of the body.”

Three studies tracked data on how often people had bowel movements and looked at cognitive function assessments. Based on data from nearly 13,000 people between 2014 and 2018, researchers noted that less frequent bowel movements were linked to poorer cognitive function. When they compared the data to people who had daily bowel movements, they found that not going as often produced the equivalent of 3 additional years of chronological cognitive aging.

Chronic constipation was linked to 73% higher odds of cognitive decline. The risk for cognitive decline went down when people had a bowel movement more than twice a day.

About 16% of people across the globe deal with constipation — a health problem that is common among older adults possibly due to medications, diet and inactivity.

Snyder admitted there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to gut health and long-term cognitive function.

“Answering these questions may uncover novel therapeutic and risk-reduction approaches for Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” she said.

Snyder said researchers are waiting on results of the U.S. Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk (U.S. POINTER) trial to see how behavior-based actions affect the gut-brain axis.  Meanwhile, people should ask their doctors about digestive health, nutrition, and constipation. 

To prevent constipation and improve gut health, people can eat high-fiber diets and foods high in polyphenols (like whole grains, fruits, and veggies). Staying active and drinking plenty of water helps, too, according to Dong Wang, MD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.