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Why Do Seniors Have Trouble Swallowing?

why do seniors have trouble swallowing

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.

For caregivers, it’s scary to watch someone who’s having trouble swallowing and not be able to help. 

We explain what dysphagia is, why it’s so serious, common signs of dysphagia, and what causes it.


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 be aware of because it can cause serious health problems for seniors, including:

  1. Poor nutrition

  2. Dehydration

  3. Loss of appetite

  4. Weight loss

  5. Not taking medication properly

  6. 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 and symptoms of 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 you’re noticing frequent signs of dysphagia, it’s essential to have your older adult visit their doctor for an examination as soon as possible.

Signs of dysphagia include:

  1. Coughing while eating or drinking

  2. Choking on food, liquids, or medication

  3. A gurgly sounding voice, especially after eating or drinking

  4. Difficulty swallowing food or drinks

  5. Drooling

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:

  1. Do you often cough or choke after eating or drinking?

  2. Does it sometimes feel like food is going down the “wrong way”?

  3. Do you often feel like food is stuck in your throat?

  4. How long does it take you to eat a meal?

  5. Is eating sometimes less enjoyable than it previously was?

  6. 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.

Common causes include:

  1. Teeth in bad condition or poorly fitting dentures

  2. Normal aging (weakening of mouth/throat muscles)

  3. Acid reflux (GERD)

  4. Stroke

  5. Cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s or dementia

  6. Cancer of the mouth, throat, or esophagus

  7. Certain medications

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