Studies have estimated that 15% of the elderly population in the United States experience swallowing problems. Dysphagia in older adults is a growing concern as it can lead to major health issues such as malnutrition, dehydration, and aspiration pneumonia. The latter occurs when food or liquid fragments in the lungs cause lung infection, which is a major cause of death and hospitalization in older adults. Knowing the causes behind swallowing problems can help you deal with dysphagia and prevent choking.
As we grow older, our muscles gradually weaken. The same goes for muscles that are required for chewing and swallowing in the throat, mouth, and esophagus. Over time, the decrease in the strength and mobility of these muscles increases the risk of food and fluid entering the airway instead of the esophagus.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that gradually compromises memory and cognitive function. It destroys the connections between cells in the frontal lobe of the brain that is responsible for intelligence, judgment, and behavior. It also affects the temporal lobe, which creates and preserves memory. These cortical regions of the brain are incidentally involved in normal swallowing. Likewise, other types of dementia and cognitive disorders may give rise to swallowing problems. This includes cognitive dysfunction caused by strokes.
Cancer of the Esophagus, Mouth, or Throat
Aging comes with a heightened risk of developing cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, the median age of a cancer diagnosis is 66 years. The tongue, lips, or throat muscle movement can be impeded by a tumor in the neck or head, which leads to difficulty in moving food around the mouth to be chewed and swallowed. Tumors can also narrow the food passage, causing swallowing problems. Someone who undergoes radiation therapy can also experience dysphagia as radiation causes the mucosal lining and the muscles of the throat, mouth, and esophagus to become deformed and stiff.
Poor Teeth Condition or Ill-fitting Dentures
Older adults are more likely to have oral health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately two out of three adults aged 65 years or older have gum disease, and nearly one out of five adults aged 65 years or older have completely lost their teeth. Missing teeth can result in lower bite force, which impairs your ability to chew food, especially hard substances. Gum disease can also make eating a difficult and painful experience.
If you are wearing dentures, ill-fitting dentures can result in swallowing problems too. Poorly fitting dentures, especially a complete denture, can lead to insufficient contact between the upper and lower teeth, which causes chewing difficulty and poor food manipulation.
Aging affects our salivary glands and results in decreased salivation as well as reduced quality of saliva. Saliva is essential for the digestion of food particles and the sensory and textural perception of food. Inadequate saliva production means you will not only have problems breaking down food particles but also have difficulty swallowing food. Furthermore, your taste buds may be affected by changes in the concentration of organic and inorganic components in your saliva as you grow older.
What Should You Do if You Have Swallowing Problems?
If you are experiencing swallowing problems, you are not alone. See a doctor immediately to determine the cause of dysphagia so you can be given proper treatment. At Conservatory At Champion Forest, our team members are trained to assist residents with dysphagia. Our retirement community provides round-the-clock access to medical aid and has safety measures for seniors put in place to ensure our residents’ well-being.