Swallowing problems are more common in seniors
Some older adults have trouble swallowing food or liquids. This serious condition is called dysphagia and could cause malnutrition, dehydration, or aspiration pneumonia. It can also make mealtime a scary experience for both you and your senior.
What is dysphagia?
Dysphagia means difficulty swallowing and is pronounced dis-fay-gee-ah (hear the word here).
It can happen at any age, but is more common in older adults, especially those with acid reflux. It’s estimated that 15% of seniors and up to 68% of nursing home residents are affected by dysphagia.
Why you should be concerned about swallowing problems
Dysphagia is important to know about because it can cause many serious health problems for seniors, including:
- Poor nutrition
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Not taking medication properly
- Aspiration pneumonia — a lung infection caused by food or liquid particles in the lungs and leading cause of hospitalization and death in nursing home residents
Signs that your senior could have dysphagia
Having trouble swallowing once in a while, usually because of eating too fast or not chewing well, isn’t the same as showing signs of dysphagia. But if swallowing difficulty is happening frequently, it’s important to talk with a doctor.
These signs might indicate someone has dysphagia:
- Coughing while eating or drinking
- Choking on food, liquids, or medication
- A gurgly sounding voice, especially after eating or drinking
- Difficulty swallowing food or drinks
If you aren’t able to eat meals with your older adult, here are some questions you can ask to find out if they’re having a swallowing problem:
- Do you often cough or choke after eating or drinking?
- Does it sometimes feel like food is going down the “wrong way”?
- Do you often feel like food is stuck in your throat?
- How long does it take you to eat a meal?
- Is eating sometimes less enjoyable than it previously was?
- Have you lost weight recently (without trying)?
What causes dysphagia?
Any problem in the swallowing process can cause trouble. There are many potential causes for dysphagia, which is why it’s so important to get checked out by a doctor.
Some common causes:
- Teeth in bad condition or poorly fitting dentures
- Normal aging (weakening of mouth/throat muscles)
- Acid reflux (GERD)
- Cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s or dementia
- Cancer of the mouth, throat, or esophagus
- Certain medications
Difficulty swallowing is a serious problem for seniors. For caregivers, it’s scary to watch someone who’s having trouble swallowing and not be able to help.
If you’re seeing frequent signs of dysphagia, the best thing to do is to have your senior visit their doctor ASAP.
By Connie Chow, Contributing Writer and Founder of DailyCaring.com
Sources: NCBI U.S. National Library of Medicine, American Academy of Otolaryngology, Today’s Geriatric Medicine