Dr Rebecca Leonard, a professor at the Department of Otolaryngology at UC Davis found that “as many as 20% of individuals over the age of 50 years, and most individuals by the age of 80 years, experience some degree of swallowing difficulty.” According to Dr Leonard’s study, stroke, dementia and other age-related diseases are the primarily cause of swallowing difficulty among adults. However, some adults may experience difficulty swallowing due to changes in their swallowing physiology.
Below are some changes that could lead to swallowing difficulty among adults:
- Missing teeth or shifting tooth positions, which affects how the elders prepare food before swallowing.
- Reduced vocal cord sensitivity. With less sensitivity, the vocal cord is unable to react quickly during swallowing, allowing food to enter the airway and the lungs (aspiration).
- The weakening of the tongue and throat (pharynx). Reduction in the strength of the tongue and throat could result to incomplete or ineffective swallow, which causes food to get stuck in the throat and constrict the airway.
- The decrease in the opening of the sphincter. With ageing, the size of the sphincter opening may decrease leading to difficulty in swallowing solid foods, pills or tablets.
- Longer and more dilated throat (pharynx) among elderly, which increases the normal time for single swallow by up to 20%.
Dr Leonard also mentioned that changes in taste and smell acuity, changes in how people breathe during swallow and changes in the way the brain functions with age have a potential impact on the quality of swallow among elders. The increased use of prescription medication among elders also causes oral dryness, which could contribute to the swallowing difficulty among adults.
These changes happen gradually that some elders just accept them as part of ageing. Dr Leonard stressed the importance of being aware of the changes in swallowing physiology among elderly in order to be able to address the issue safely and effectively and avoid the risks of more serious complications such as pneumonia or lung infections resulting from aspiration.
Coughing or choking during or after eating or drinking, the feeling of food or pill getting stuck in your throat or difficulty in swallowing could indicate dysphagia and need to be brought your physician or care providers’ attention.