Understand and manage dysphagia in the elderly

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Our bodies undergo various functional deterioration as we age, one common challenge in the elderly people is the ability to eat and swallow. The difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia, is a great concern as it affect the health, safety, and quality of life of the elderly.

In this blog, we will delve into the topic surrounding dysphagia, explore its causes, symptoms, and complications, and discuss the available treatments and management strategies for elderly individuals suffering this condition.

Dysphagia in elderly

What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia is a medical term that refers to difficulty or discomfort in swallowing. It is a common issue among the elderly, and can result from various underlying causes. 


The causes can be categorised into the following:

  1. Age-related changes
    As individuals age, there can be natural changes in the muscles and tissues of the throat, making swallowing more challenging.

  2. Neurological disorders
    Conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and dementia can affect the nerves and muscles involved in swallowing.

  3. Gastrointestinal conditions
    GERD, esophageal strictures (narrowing), and conditions affecting the lower esophageal sphincter can contribute to dysphagia.

  4. Cancer
    Tumors in the mouth, throat, or esophagus can impede the normal swallowing process.

  5. Medications
    Some medications may cause dry mouth or affect the muscles involved in swallowing, contributing to dysphagia.

2 types of dysphagia

There are two main types of dysphagia depending on where the problems arise:

  1. Oropharyngeal dysphagia
    This type of dysphagia is related to difficulties in the mouth and throat. It can be caused by problems with the muscles and nerves involved in chewing and swallowing. Conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and head and neck cancers can contribute to oropharyngeal dysphagia.

  2. Esophageal dysphagia
    This type of dysphagia is associated with issues in the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. Narrowing of the esophagus, inflammation, or muscular problems can lead to difficulty in the passage of food. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and esophageal spasms are examples of conditions that can cause esophageal dysphagia.


Symptoms of dysphagia

Recognising the symptoms of dysphagia is the first step in addressing this condition. Common signs include:

  • Difficulty initiating a swallow
  • Pain while swallowing
  • Coughing or choking while eating or drinking
  • Regurgitation of food or liquids
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Recurrent pneumonia (due to aspiration of food or liquid into the lungs)
Dysphagia elderly difficulty swallowing

Seniors with dysphagia may also avoid eating or drinking altogether due to fear of discomfort or aspiration, which may then lead to weight loss and malnutrition.


Complications of dysphagia

Untreated dysphagia can lead to serious complications, such as malnutrition, dehydration, and aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration occurs when food or liquid enters the airway instead of the esophagus, posing a risk of infection and respiratory issues. It is crucial to address dysphagia promptly to prevent these potentially life-threatening complications.


Diagnosis and treatment:

Diagnosing the underlying cause of dysphagia is crucial for developing an effective treatment plan. This may involve a combination of medical history assessment, imaging studies (such as a barium swallow or endoscopy), and collaboration with specialists like speech therapists, gastroenterologists, or neurologists.


There are various treatments that can alleviate dysphagia symptoms and improve swallowing function.

  1. Speech therapists play a vital role in dysphagia management, providing exercises to strengthen the muscles involved in swallowing.
  2. Dietary modifications, such as altering food textures and thickness, are often recommended.
  3. In some cases, medications or surgical interventions may be necessary, depending on the underlying cause.

Management of elderly with dysphagia

Caring for elderly individuals with dysphagia requires a multidisciplinary approach. Caregivers should collaborate with healthcare professionals, including speech therapists, dietitians, and doctors, to create a comprehensive care plan. Implementing strategies such as proper positioning during meals, monitoring fluid intake, and providing emotional support can significantly improve the overall well-being of seniors with dysphagia.


Dysphagia elderly swallowing


Dysphagia is a complex and common issue among the elderly that demands attention, understanding, and comprehensive care. By staying informed about the causes, symptoms, and complications of dysphagia, caregivers and healthcare professionals can work together to implement effective treatments and management strategies, ultimately enhancing the quality of life for elderly individuals facing this challenge, allowing them to continue enjoying meals and maintaining proper nutrition. Early detection and intervention are key, paving the way for a more comfortable and fulfilling life for seniors with dysphagia.


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