Swallowing Problems Common in Older Adults

Some older adults have trouble swallowing foods or liquids. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the risk for swallowing difficulty, known as dysphagia, can increase with age, but is more commonly related to age-related diseases such as stroke or dementia.

Dysphagia is usually caused by diseases or damage to the brain or nerves. Diagnoses that may be associated with swallowing problems include:

  • Stroke
  • Brain injury
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Alzheimer’s disease/dementia
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Head/neck cancer
  • Injuries or surgeries to the head or neck

Dysphagia is a growing health concern because eating and drinking are vital to everyday life to maintain essential nutrition and hydration. The NCBI states that swallowing difficulty is becoming a growing health concern in the aging population as it can lead to nutritional deficits and increased risk of pneumonia. Swallowing problems can result in pneumonia and other related lung or breathing issues because food can go into the lungs instead of the stomach. A person with severe swallowing difficult may even need a feeding tube to help get enough nutrition to assist with healing and strengthening their body.

Since eating and drinking are often activities people enjoy with family and friends, swallowing difficulty can also affect older adults’ social lives.

Signs and Symptoms of Swallowing Problems

In order to avoid the physical and social consequences of dysphagia, there are certain signs and symptoms to watch for when someone has difficulty swallowing. These include:

  • Coughing when eating or drinking.
  • A wet voice or gurgle during or after eating/drinking.
  • Extra effort or time needed to chew or swallow food.
  • Liquid leaking from the mouth or getting stuck in the mouth.
  • Recurring pneumonia or chest congestion after eating.
  • Weight loss or dehydration from not being able to eat enough.
  • Feeling like food is stuck in one’s throat.

It is important for an individual to be aware of these signs and symptoms. In addition, it is beneficial for others to observe older adults to avoid potential serious health issues as a result of dysphasia.

Treatment for Swallowing Problems

If an individual experiences difficulty swallowing, consult a health care provider. They may refer the person to a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or speech therapist who works specifically with people who have swallowing problems.

Once an evaluation is ordered by a physician, a SLP will assess the individual and may perform special tests to see

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inside their throat when they swallow. According to another 2013 NCBI study, these tests may include a video-fluoroscopic study or a fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation.

When the evaluation is complete, a SLP or other professional may recommend different plans while also working to help strengthen the muscles that are used for swallowing. A SLP may recommend diet texture modifications that can help a person swallow more easily and may also recommend positions or strategies to help with swallow safety.

During this time, a SLP or other professional will also help an individual strengthen their swallowing muscles through swallow rehabilitation. According to the 2013 NCBI study, swallow rehabilitation helps strengthen the neuromusculature involved in swallowing. These muscles include the tongue, hard and soft palate, pharyngeal muscles and gastroesophageal junction.

The prognosis for dysphagia varies with each individual and depends on several factors, including age, overall health and the cause. With early evaluation and proper treatment, many people experience a significant decrease of symptoms and improvement in their swallowing abilities.