PHILADELPHIA REFLECTIONS
Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

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Pot Belly

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T.S. Eliot

In a lovesong written by T.S. Eliot, the character named J. Alfred Prufrock complains that as he grows old, he wears the bottom of his trousers rolled. College freshmen who encounter this line are apt to glide over it, uncomprehending, but the allusion will eventually grow clearer. The old man tends to find his legs have apparently grown shorter, because he has to roll up his pants to keep them from dragging on the ground. Although the cartilages in his knees, hips and lower spine may have compressed a little, the shortened legs are more apparent than real. The pants seem longer because his belt line has dropped. Dropped below his pot belly, that is.

No medical textbook that I know contains much discussion of pot bellies, even though they are almost universal, and universally noticed. The muscles of the belly wall relax, allowing the guts to bulge forward over the pubic bone.

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Even doctors don't know enough about this disorder of old age {bottom quote}

The aging lungs tend to enlarge, pushing the guts downward. The spine bends forward, and of course fat tends to increase inside the abdominal cavity. If there has not been too much weight gain, the pot belly tends to flatten out when its owner lies down on his back; if weight has been gained, the pot sticks up like a pregnancy, obscuring the lower edge of the rib cage, bulging out at the sides. Normally, a young person's abdomen is described as "scaphoid", or hollowed out like the inside of a rowboat. A skinny young woman has wider flaring hip bones, exaggerating this scaphoid appearance, and making the waist narrower by allowing the guts to drop down into the larger pelvic cavity. Younger people are more active, with more muscle tone holding things together somewhat better.

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Pot Belly

Anyway, when the older person rolls over in bed, the innards of the belly cavity get squashed against the mattress. The old man's prostate leads to a fuller bladder, which means he gets up earlier when he rolls over it, and gets up a lot earlier if he is overweight and has more pot belly. Or it may be the upper stomach that gets squashed, forcing the acid stomach contents up the esophagus and resulting in heartburn, burping, and even cough or hoarseness if the acid gets up into the throat and back down the windpipe. With weight gain, the pressure of lying prone can press against the main leg veins as they cross the brim of the pelvis, resulting in swollen ankles. Since the large intestines are coiled and kinked, external pressure against them causes a minor degree of obstruction which can be experienced as constipation or sometimes bowel urgency. Since the bowels contain a fair amount of gas, pressure on them causes small gas bubbles to merge into larger bubbles, with resulting flatulence which can reach startling proportions in the early morning hours. For all these reasons, people with pot bellies tend to sleep on their backs, causing a lot of snoring. If they snort and waken, they may have night time insomnia, daytime drowsiness. One sure sign of this is that the bed partner flees to a separate bedroom.

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Scarlett O'Hara's Wasp-Waist

Victims of this affliction may, if they choose, imitate Scarlett O'Hara in that famous scene in Gone With the Wind with the slave girls pulling a tight corset even more painfully tight, but corsets are currently out of fashion. Or they can take purple pills to correct the heartburn, or regular laxatives for some of the other problems. In general, however, leg-lifting exercises strengthen the belly wall muscles (abs, I believe they are called), and losing weight by eating less does the rest. Losing weight is never easy, but in this case a few pounds can make big differences in belly circumference, as measured by the belt size. Nothing will shrink the enlarged lungs pushing down, however, and arthritis of the spine may maintain the forward stoop. Very few older people are completely without some signs of this common affliction. Even so athletic a person as the ramrod-straight George Washington, developed just a little pot. And Benjamin Franklin, of course, had a hopeless case.

(1687)

I'm 6'2, 83 years old, weigh 165 but have this hard, perfectly round pot belly that protudes from my body. Most of my adult life I weighed 178 lbs; At 16 I weiged 132, at 26 226. I became more active, changed what I ate and how much and maintained doing that till this day. What in the world is causing the "pot" ?
Posted by: Dutch   |   Jul 8, 2014 5:00 AM

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