Happy senior man and woman looking at camera in the kitchen

Common Causes of Difficulty Swallowing for Older People

With age comes increasing demands from your body and the need to take better care of yourself, which means practicing healthy habits. But it also means understanding the specific afflictions that could arise as you get older. This includes dysphagia, whether as the primary ailment or secondary to a different health condition. 

On an average day, about 4% of people will have difficulty swallowing. However, once you reach the age of 50, the probability you might encounter trouble swallowing increases to 22%. Seniors don’t only struggle to swallow, but they also have trouble keeping food down, difficulty taking medication, and, often, have issues breathing. 

While dysphagia itself isn’t fatal, it can cause some hazardous ill effects. In the short-term, trouble swallowing can lead to dehydration, decreased nutrition, and rapid loss of weight. Over the long-term, dysphagia can lead to aspiration pneumonia, which is a condition caused when food or liquid ends up in the lungs. Aspiration pneumonia is a massive problem among nursing home residents. In fact, it’s the leading cause of hospitalization and death among those in elder care facilities. 

Treatments for dysphagia vary across rehabilitative and palliative modalities, but the first and most important step in delivering care is qualifying a patient’s condition. 

Why do seniors struggle to swallow?

After the age of 50, every person falls into an at-risk group, regardless of their current health condition. Seniors are naturally at risk for a host of specific health developments, simply because of the toll age takes on our bodies. Heart attack, stroke, and blood clots are some of the most significant acute concerns seniors face, while Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, and a broad range of cancers become more of a concern as time goes by. 

Dysphagia is commonly attached to all these conditions, and more. Motor functions disrupted by stroke or heart attack need to be re-learned, including swallowing. Neurological conditions, like Parkinson’s Disease, disrupt the swallowing function and require therapy to support the action. Depending on the patient’s condition and their prognosis, dysphagia therapy can occur in either a rehabilitative or palliative capacity. 

In addition to these acute and chronic health conditions, seniors also grapple with the loss of muscle integrity. Swallowing is a complex function that relies on the esophageal muscles across three segments–the striated muscle, the smooth muscle, and the middle third contains a mixture of both. As we age and after decades of swallowing, these muscles can deteriorate. As a result, seniors often have difficulty swallowing larger food particles, tougher foods, or pills. 

Finally, the oral health of seniors plays a big role in dysphagia. Many seniors face issues of missing teeth, periodontitis, dentures, and/or the inability to maintain their oral care regimen. Everything–from lack of saliva to excess oral bacteria–can affect a person’s ability to swallow, making it more difficult for seniors. 

Signs of dysphagia in seniors

For seniors with underlying health problems, dysphagia is a constant concern and something many clinicians are on the lookout for. The same goes for nursing home residents and seniors with in-home care or those in hospice. Attendants and nurses are trained to recognize the signs of dysphagia and subsequent struggles with aspiration. 

For untrained individuals, recognizing the signs of dysphagia can be difficult since they don’t strictly present as trouble swallowing. Here are some signs that may indicate dysphagia in seniors, in varying severities:

  • Coughing during meals or while drinking;
  • Choking when trying to swallow medication;
  • A gurgling noise in the throat after meals;
  • Uncontrollable drooling;
  • A consistently hoarse voice;
  • Trouble swallowing large cuts of food;
  • The consistent sensation that food or water is “going down the wrong pipe.”

It’s important not to brush off these signs or attribute them to “old age.” Dysphagia is a condition more likely to worsen than it is to improve, especially without intervention. Watch for the above symptoms and consult a physician about the possibility of dysphagia if they become recurring.

The treatment seniors need to swallow

For seniors with difficulty swallowing, there’s help. Dysphagia medical devices, such as Swallow Strong, have been shown to assist both clinicians and patients in managing and recovering from the harsh effects of this debilitating condition. Using data produced by the device, speech pathologists and other clinicians are able to tailor dysphagia therapies to each patient, regardless of root cause or prognosis. 

Dysphagia treatment starts with proper diagnosis and is made possible by cutting-edge devices that enable individualized levels of patient care.