Dysphagia in the Elderly

As people age, one very common medical issue they may come across is dysphagia. This medical issue is more commonly referred to as having trouble swallowing. It can be incredibly dangerous for patients who suffer from the issue because it can cause them to not get enough nutrition or to choke frequently. Dysphagia affects thousands of people around the world each year. The elderly are the most common group of people who are affected by the medical issue due to age-related diseases and age-related factors that predispose them to swallowing troubles. If you or any of your loved ones is suffering from swallowing problems, then keep reading to find out the facts about dysphagia, and find out what can be done to help.

Dysphagia Facts

Dysphagia is a medical condition that is defined as any type of disruption in the swallowing process. The condition can affect anyone of any age, but most often affects the elderly. Doctors believe that the elderly are most at risk for developing the condition due to their age and due to other age-related diseases that can occur simultaneously with dysphagia. The condition can be a direct symptom of anatomical issues that should be addressed. If a patient’s mouth, larynx, pharynx or esophagus is not functioning properly, then they may experience dysphagia. Other times, the condition arises due to idiopathic reasons. In either event, the condition should be taken very seriously. Dysphagia comes with a myriad of secondary problems. The main problem that dysphagia brings is malnutrition. Patients with the condition often stay away from hard, crunchy foods because these foods become too difficult for them to swallow. Overtime, the list of foods they must avoid will grow, and soon they will not be receiving all of the nutrients they need to survive. Choking is another risk for elderly people who have dysphagia. If they are not able to swallow properly, then they could easily choke on their food, and, in very severe cases they could aspirate their food and develop pneumonia.

Elderly and Dysphagia

As people age their bodies change drastically. Elderly people undergo many physiological changes each year of their life. The physiology of their neck and throat undergo numerous changes that may widely affect their ability to swallow. As people age they often lose muscle mass and elasticity in their skin. Both of these losses greatly affect a person’s ability to swallow. As muscle mass and elasticity is lost, the efficiency of a person’s swallowing mechanism is also lost. Generally, everyone who ages will have a general slowing of their swallowing mechanism. Many elderly people notice they must chew their food more carefully as they grow older. This is completely normal, however once their swallowing mechanism has slowed to the point where it is difficult to swallow, it becomes a medical issue. Other age-related physiological changes that contribute to dysphagia include fine motor changes, the decrease of taste and smell and the lessened amount of saliva in a patient’s mouth. All of these changes are directly correlated with aging and are considered normal. However, they all will greatly affect a person’s dietary choices and if they become severe then they could lead to dysphagia. Other causes of dysphagia in the elderly could be serious. The condition could be a direct result of issues with your head or neck, such as cancer or a muscular wasting disease. Most cases of dysphagia in the elderly are a direct result of normal aging; however it is always a good idea to mention your symptoms to a doctor. They can decide if the swallowing issues are from aging or a bigger problem.

Malnutrition and Dysphagia

If you or your loved one has been diagnosed with dysphagia then it is important to begin receiving proper nutrition. Many patients with dysphagia have some form of malnutrition due to their swallowing issues. Once diagnosed, a vital part of their treatment is to help them eradicate any vitamin or mineral deficiencies so that they can live healthy lives. Prolonged malnutrition can lead to decreased function in every aspect of a patient’s daily life. Overtime, malnutrition can lead to an increased risk of disease and even death. To help manage dysphagia and malnutrition, it is important to begin seeing a doctor. There are treatment plans available for patients with dysphagia and the success rates are very high. Doctors and physical therapists can work with patients to retrain them how to swallow. They can accomplish this by teaching patients about postural changes they can make every day to reduce their risk for aspiration and swallowing difficulties. Swallow maneuvers are also frequently taught to patients with dysphagia. These maneuvers can help patients relearn how to swallow in order to rehabilitate them. While patients are in treatment for their dysphagia they will also be put on a diet to improve malnutrition if necessary. Dietary shakes that are packed with vitamins are often utilized to keep patients healthy. These shakes are easy to swallow and can help return a patient’s nutrient levels to the normal range. For severe cases, a feeding tube or IV line may be inserted to get nutrients directly into a patient’s system.

Dysphagia is a serious condition that affects many elderly people. The condition can be a direct result of aging, or could occur as a result of another illness. If you or a loved one is suffering from swallowing issues, then talk to a doctor. The sooner the patient can be rehabilitated, the less of a risk they have for becoming malnourished or developing a secondary disease as a result of their dysphagia. People who have prolonged dysphagia are at risk for pneumonia, stroke, malnutrition and dementia.