What Causes Swallowing Problems in Seniors?

Posted: 4/20/2018 9:03 AM by Interim HealthCare
Experts say that up to 25 percent of adults in the United States develop a condition called dysphagia in their lives. Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing. Dysphagia puts older adults at a higher risk for aspiration pneumonia, which occurs when food enters the lungs. Approximately half of people with dysphagia die within 12 months of being diagnosed. Researchers continue to study dysphagia to determine just what causes it and how it might be prevented.
How Swallowing Works
Swallowing requires several things to work together at the same time. The brain, nerves, muscles, valves, and esophagus have to operate properly to allow food to pass into the stomach without entering the lungs. Experts at WebMD say that there are three phases to swallowing:
  • Phase 1: Food is in the mouth where the tongue and palate keep it there. This part of swallowing is the only one that humans can control.
  • Phase 2: The second part of swallowing starts with the brain deciding it is time to swallow. Reflexes push food into the throat. A valve opens so that food can get into the esophagus. At the same time, the airway is closed off.
  • Phase 3: Food enters the esophagus, which contracts in waves to move the food toward the stomach. The valve at the bottom of the esophagus opens so that food can pass through. 
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently discovered that in older adults, swallowing starts later in the process, so the action of shutting off the airway happened later, too. This change in the way they swallow is what makes it more likely that seniors will aspirate.
Causes of Dysphagia
There are a wide range of health problems that can cause difficulty swallowing. Some of them are:
  • Diseases that disrupt the way the brain works, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis (MS).
  • Problems with muscles in the mouth or pharynx, such as those caused by a stroke.
  • Inability of the sphincter muscle to relax.
  • Narrowing of the esophagus, which can be caused by acid reflux or a tumor.
Regardless of the cause of swallowing problems, helping an older adult with dysphagia get enough nutrition can be difficult and time consuming. However, a senior care provider can assist with preparing soft foods that are easier to swallow. They can also cut foods into very small pieces that aren’t as likely to cause choking. If the older adult must be fed through a tube, a senior care provider can assist with the feeding. They can help to get equipment ready for use and clean it afterward.

Learn more about senior care.