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Scand J Gastroenterol. 2001 Dec;36(12):1274-8.

Lactose malabsorption and intolerance in the elderly.

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Gastroentrology Unit, IRCCS S. Matteo Hospital, University of Pavia, Italy.



Lactase activity declines with age in rats, but it is not clear whether this model is also shared by humans. Few studies have evaluated lactose intolerance and malabsorption in the elderly and no definite conclusions can be drawn. The aim of our study was therefore to verify the impact of age on lactose intolerance and malabsorption.


Eighty-four healthy subjects took part in the study. Thirty-three were <65 years, 17 were between 65 and 74 years and 34 were >74 years. All the subjects underwent a preliminary evaluation of intestinal gas production capacity and oro-cecal transit time by H2/CH4 breath test after lactulose. After a 3-day period, an H2/CH4 breath test after lactose was performed. The occurrence of intolerance symptoms during the test and in the 24 h after the test was recorded.


Breath H2 and CH4 excretion parameters at fasting and after lactulose did not differ between the three groups. Cumulative breath H2 excretion after lactose was higher in subjects >74 years than in subjects <65 years and in subjects aged 65-74 years, while no difference was found between the latter two groups. In subjects >74 years, the prevalence of lactose malabsorption was higher than in the other two groups, while no significant difference was observed between subjects <65 years and subjects aged 65-74 years. Within the malabsorber subjects, the prevalence of lactose intolerance was higher in subjects <65 years than in those aged 65-74 years and in those aged >74 years. No significant difference was found between the latter two groups. No difference was found between the three groups in terms of daily calcium intake and a significant negative correlation between symptom score and daily calcium intake was only found in the group of subjects aged <65 years.


As age increases, the prevalence of lactose malabsorption shows an increase while the prevalence of intolerance symptoms among malabsorbers shows a decrease. Accordingly, daily calcium intake was similar among the adults and elderly studied.

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