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Can you become lactose intolerant as you get older?

Can people develop lactose intolerance over time?

Do you digest dairy differently at an older age than you did when you younger? [Source: Shutterstock]

Do you digest dairy differently at an older age than you did when you younger? [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • Lactose intolerance is the reduced ability to digest milk sugars, due to insufficient amounts of the gut enzyme called ‘lactase’
  • Caucasian people are less likely to have an intolerance to lactose until later in life due to reported evolutionary factors
  • You may be able to purchase lactase tablets, supplements or drops sold in most grocery stores without a prescription to help digest dairy products


Recognising that one’s body changes over time can be a tough pill to swallow, but when that means giving up chocolate — it hits hard.

Lactose intolerance is characterised by the reduced ability to process lactose, commonly found in dairy products, such as milk, chocolate, butter, yoghurt and custard. However, lactose can also be found in items such as birth control pills or antacid tablets, so it is important to read labels carefully and opt for ‘dairy-free’ or ‘reduced lactose’ goods to combat adverse reactions.


Lactose intolerance may impact people differently and to varying extents, with symptoms such as:

  • diarrhoea;
  • nausea;
  • vomiting,
  • bloating.

What causes lactose intolerance?

As mentioned, lactose intolerance is caused by insufficient gut enzymes called ‘lactase’ in the human body that are used to process milk sugars. A person may have reduced lactase in their system due to:

  • inherited genetic factors;
  • an infection in the digestive system.

An infection in the digestive system can lead to a temporary bout of lactose intolerance that may only last a few weeks and tends to occur in young children rather than adulthood.

The onset of lactose intolerance tends to occur in people aged 20 to 40 years and is lifelong, but enzyme production, like many things in older age, can slow down and lead to development later in life.

Risks for older people with lactose intolerance

Dairy products can offer a wide variety of health benefits that can offset conditions that primarily affect older people, such as osteoporosis, osteopenia and malnutrition.

As such, older people who develop an intolerance to lactose and have to reduce or remove dairy from their diet should purchase some calcium and vitamin D supplements to keep their bones healthy.

Bone health is a significant factor in positive ageing and a significant contributor to longevity. Following a hip fracture in Australia, 11 percent of patients are discharged to residential care and up to six percent of cases result in death.

The ‘Know Your Bones’ Report found that half of all fractures occur in adults aged 50 – 69 years and nearly a quarter of respondents over 70 years with clinical risk factors for osteoporosis were not doing enough to maintain their bone health.

What to do if you think you may be lactose intolerant

Do not make any drastic changes to your diet without speaking to your doctor, as dairy provides significant nutritional value to your overall well-being.

Your regular doctor may be able to help you receive a diagnosis and set up a carefully designed plan to address your reaction to lactose following tests.

One way to find out whether you are lactose intolerant is with a ‘hydrogen breath test’ and the other method to receive a diagnosis is through a scheduled elimination diet to see if symptoms improve once foods are removed.


Are you lactose intolerant? If so, do you still put cheese on your pizza or are you the odd customer at your local pizzeria? Let the team at Talking Aged Care know.


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Related content:

The older person’s guide to vitamins

The importance of elderly nutrition

How to maintain and improve mobility and reduce falls


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