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Does your elderly loved one have trouble swallowing food, medicine, or liquids?

Difficulty swallowing, known as dysphagia, affects an estimated 6 million seniors in the United States. When our loved one is choking or can’t seem to get food or medicine down, we often struggle to find the reasons. Why do elderly have trouble swallowing? That question is one of the most asked by caregivers when visiting the doctor. And it’s usually followed by a quest for how to resolve or at least manage the problem.


Medically, this serious condition is called dysphagia. Left untreated, it often leads to malnutrition, dehydration, and even aspiration pneumonia. Caregivers might watch the loved one struggle with swallowing in fear, unable to help. Knowing the cause and how to manage the condition helps calm those fears and offers relief to the elderly loved one, too.

For most of us, swallowing happens almost second nature, as reflexive as breathing and blinking. Of course, you might need to think about it as you try to swallow a pill or when something “goes down the wrong pipe,” causing you to cough or choke. But typically, we don’t give swallowing much thought.

When it’s not easy and a person has trouble swallowing, we call it dysphagia.

What is Dysphagia?

Simply stated, dysphagia means difficulty swallowing. It’s 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 problems. In fact, studies show an estimated 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 be aware of because it can cause serious health problems for seniors, including:

Malnutrition: Poor nutrition is often a problem in our elderly loved ones and dysphagia is often the cause or one of the causes. Dysphagia may cause loss of appetite (see below) or they may lack the energy to continue eating an entire meal.
Dehydration: Elderly often lack the ability to sense thirst and may suffer dehydration due to that.  However, dysphagia may be the cause or may amplify the problem.
Loss of appetite: When they have trouble swallowing, elderly people often choose not to eat as much. It might be fear of choking or simply that they grow tired of trying to eat.
Weight loss: A secondary symptom of dysphagia, usually caused by loss of appetite or malnutrition, weight loss is another concern associated with swallowing problems.
Not taking medication properly: When they are unable to swallow properly, elderly may refuse to take medications or may be unable to take them.
Aspiration pneumonia:  If they have trouble swallowing properly, it’s likely that the elderly might inhale food or liquid into their lungs, causing this lung infection. This is one of the leading causes of hospitalization and death in nursing home residents.

Signs and symptoms of dysphagia

Elderly often have dental problems. Those, or just a lack of concentration, may lead to not chewing their food well, which can lead to occasional trouble swallowing. However, the occasional problem isn’t the same as showing signs of dysphagia.

But if you notice frequent signs of dysphagia, schedule a visit with the doctor. Because this condition can quickly lead to complications and even death, it’s important to have an examination to establish the cause and management.

Signs of dysphagia include:

  • Coughing while eating or drinking, signifying difficulty swallowing.
  • Choking on food, liquids, or medication.
  • A gurgling sounding voice, particularly after eating or drinking.
  • Difficulty swallowing food, drinks, or medicines, even if they are not actually choking each time.
  • Drooling even without food or drink might indicate an inability to swallow normal amounts of saliva.
  • Pain while swallowing is often a symptom.
  • Sensation of food getting stuck in the throat or upper chest.
  • Regurgitation of food back into the throat or mouth, with our without vomiting.
  • Frequent heartburn or acid in the throat.
  • Avoiding food because of swallowing problems.
  • Unexplained weight loss.

If your loved one is able to discuss the problem with you, ask questions such as:

  • 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, making it so important to get checked out by a doctor early.

Common causes include:

  • Dental issues such as teeth in bad condition or poorly fitted dentures
  • Normal aging conditions such as weakening of mouth/throat muscles.
  • Digestive issues including acid reflux (GERD)
  • Neurological issues such as stroke
  • Cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s or dementia
  • Cancer of the mouth, throat, or esophagus
  • Some medications



Read More

7 tips for safely managing dysphagia


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