Aging and Dysphagia

Though dysphagia can occur as a symptom of a larger disease, it can also occur in people as a part of normal aging. In fact, 22% of adults over age 50, and 55% of those in institutional settings suffer from dysphagia.

A post by Rebecca Leonard, Ph.D. on the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders website outlined some of the ways how swallowing changes as we get older. Check out the list below:

  1. Reduced bulk and sensitivity of the vocal cords. The vocal cords help protect from aspiration (food or drink “going down the wrong pipe”) during the swallow. If the vocal cords don’t effectively seal off the airway, the material being swallowed could end up in the lungs. A telltale sign of this kind of trouble swallowing is coughing after a swallow.
  2. Reduced bulk and strength of the tongue and throat (pharynx). The tongue and pharynx help to propel food and drink down the esophagus (the tube that leads to the stomach) during the swallow. If that process isn’t working correctly, material can remain in the mouth after the swallow and cause aspiration.
  3. Decreased sphincter size at the top of the esophagus. During a normal swallow, the hole that leads to the esophagus relaxes, allowing food and drink to enter. As we age, the opening gets smaller. In this case, solid food or pills may “get stuck” on the way down to the stomach.
  4. The throat (pharynx) is longer. For younger people, the average swallowing time is about 1 second. That time gets longer as we age, meaning that the airway has to be protected for longer during each swallow.

We know that swallowing function changes as we age. Typically, we make compensations for our swallowing without knowing it, and many people continue to eat safely. However, as the population ages and more people encounter swallowing difficulty, it’s important we understand how to recognize and treat these changes so we can swallow safely into old age.

Read more on NFOSD.

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