One of the more serious issues facing older adults is swallowing problems, also known as dysphagia. As a matter of fact, experts estimate that at least 15% of all seniors have difficulty swallowing.
What is dysphagia?
Dysphagia is the medical term for swallowing problems. People who have it take more time and need to expend more effort to move food or liquid from their mouths to their stomachs.
Obviously, we all have swallowing difficulties occasionally. But that’s because of some external, temporary factor. Dysphagia, on the other hand, is a chronic condition that doesn’t go away.
Why are seniors susceptible to swallowing problems?
Dysphagia can occur at any age, and there are a number of potential causes. Which is why it’s important to get your loved one to a doctor if you suspect they might be suffering from dysphagia. That said, there are a number of factors that make it much more common in seniors:
- Age. As we age, we lose muscle. When the muscles in the mouth and/or throat weaken, swallowing can become difficult.
- Teeth. Bad teeth and dentures that don’t fit right are both risk factors for dysphagia.
- Dementia. Diseases like Alzheimer’s cause gradual loss of bodily functions, including swallowing.
- Stroke. One of the after-effects of stroke can be a loss in the ability to swallow.
How do I know if my loved one has dysphagia?
There are a number of symptoms that can indicate dysphagia:
- Coughing. Persistent coughing while eating, drinking or both.
- Gagging. Choking or gagging on food, liquids or meds.
- Drooling. Excessive saliva, especially during meals.
- Heartburn. Serious, persistent heartburn that has no connection to specific foods or spices.
- Pain. Pain or discomfort while swallowing that doesn’t go away.
The key, though, is frequency. Meaning, if you notice any of these symptoms – or even all of them – in your loved one on a one-time basis, there’s nothing to be alarmed about. If you see them frequently, though, then you need to get your loved one to their primary care physician for an evaluation.
What if your loved one lives in an assisted living or skilled nursing facility, and you don’t eat meals together often enough to keep an eye out? That’s what the staff is more. Mention your concerns to them and ask them to notify you if they see any of the above symptoms on a regular basis.
Are swallowing problems really so serious?
Unfortunately, yes, it is. Seniors who have dysphagia tend to eat less, which can lead to malnutrition. They might also stop taking necessary medications because of the difficulty in swallowing the pills. In addition, dysphagia can cause aspiration, which means that food goes into the lungs rather than the stomach. Besides the inherent danger, aspiration can cause pneumonia.
So if you think your loved one’s swallowing problems are occurring more frequently than they should, try to get them to see a doctor as soon as possible. They’ll thank you for it.