BUNGED-UP Northerners are to be asked to take part in the world's biggest study into constipation.

Not being able to go to the toilet is a major medical problem in the UK, affecting one in five older people.

Researchers at Newcastle University estimate that constipation costs the NHS £50m a year and blights the lives of thousands.

To improve understanding of the condition, they want to recruit 2,000 over-55s with constipation, from GP practices across the North-East and North Yorkshire.

Nearly half a million Britons see their GPs every year because they are constipated. The scale of the problem can be gauged by the fact that doctors prescribe more drugs for the condition than they do for diabetes or high blood pressure.

Instead of relying on laxatives, researchers will focus on diet and lifestyle and encourage patients to eat more fruit and vegetables. The results of the Lifelax study, which will last for a year, will be used by the Government to advise health professionals on the treatment of constipation.

Dietician Dr Amelia Lake, from the university's school of clinical medical sciences, said: "Comparatively little research has been carried out to tackle constipation. This is mainly because the condition is not life-threatening. People with constipation often suffer in silence because they are too embarrassed to talk about it.

"However, we know that not only is the condition costly to health services, it has a major effect on patients' quality of life.

"People with constipation are often reluctant to leave the house in case they need the toilet, or they may suffer painful bloating or feel tired and depressed. We hope Lifelax will go a long way towards helping these people feel that they can live a normal life again."