Until now, constipation has largely been overlooked for major health studies but the new 650,000 project, which is funded by the British Government, led by a research team from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and aims to involve nearly 2,000 patients, changes that.
In Britain, nearly half a million GP consultations each year concern patients with constipation, and doctors prescribe more drugs for the condition than they do for patients with diabetes or high blood pressure.
Constipation affects one in five older people and the burden on healthcare resources is expected to increase as the proportion of older people in the population rises.
The study, called LIFELAX, aims to recruit nearly 2,000 men and women with constipation aged 55 and over from 57 GP practices, making it the biggest study ever of the condition to date.
LIFELAX will focus on the North of England, recruiting from practices in Tyne and Wear, Northumberland, County Durham, Teesside and North Yorkshire, but its outcomes will be used by the Government to inform the treatment of constipation by health professionals nationwide.
The usual method of treating constipation is to prescribe laxatives, which are the 12th most prescribed drug in the UK. Currently, one-fifth of the over-65s use laxatives.
Within LIFELAX, the research team, from Newcastle University's Centre for Health Services Research and the Human Nutrition Research Centre, working with doctors from primary and secondary care, will examine how effectively patients can manage their constipation by making changes to their diet and lifestyle. The team will analyse results to determine the most cost-effective way of managing constipation.