Swallowing Problems in the Elderly


Problems in swallowing, also know as dysphagia, can be quite common in the elderly population due to normal wear on the esophagus. But there can be other, more perplexing causes that may be much more serious. If you are regularly experiencing coughing while eating or drinking, you may be accidentally inhaling food or liquid into your airway. This potentially dangerous occurrence may be a sign that you are suffering from a condition or disease that needs the immediate attention of your physician.

Common Causes of Dysphagia

As an older person, you may develop an obstructive problem due to osteophytes, which are bony protuberances that can grow from your spinal column and press on the esophagus, making swallowing difficult. Impaired saliva production, or dry mouth, can cause swallowing problems due to side effects of medications you may take, oral radiation therapy or perhaps an inflammatory condition, like gastroesophageal reflux disease. You may also find yourself experiencing dysphagia if you are underoing facial-muscle weakening due to normal aging.

Cancer and Other Disease

A tumor of the chest, esophagus or throat can often lead to an obstruction that may cause dysphagia. A swallowing problem can also occur if you have suffered a stroke, spine or brain injury. Complications of diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis can lead to serious difficulty in swallowing. Other conditions, such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Zenker's diverticulum and esophagitis, can also lead to dysphagia.

Dangers of Dysphagia

A swallowing disorder can make it difficult for an elderly person to take in enough food and liquid to properly nourish the body, which may result in malnutrition and dehydration. If small particles of food or liquid become trapped in your windpipe, harmful bacteria can spread into your lungs, causing respiratory infection or aspiration pneumonia to occur. Each of these conditions can be very serious, making it imperative that you see your doctor for testing and treatment.


Your primary physician may call in an ear, nose and throat specialist, or a speech-language pathologist to test for swallowing problems. She may perform a laryngoscopy by inserting a fiber-optic tube down your throat. A video swallow study may be performed, observing your swallowing process using a video fluoroscope. The speech-language pathologist may also observe you eating and drinking in order to discover the cause of your swallowing problem. He will then be more able decide the best course of treatment for you.


Sometimes medications can be useful in the treatment of swallowing disorders, such as antacids, proton pump inhibitors or drugs to relax your esophagus. Your physician may recommend that you chew your food more slowly and completely, and may also suggest that thickeners be added to any liquids you consume. She may teach you to position your head in a different way than you normally do while eating. She may recommend surgery to repair damage to the esophagus. In the case of a severe swallowing problem that cannot be treated by medication, retraining or corrective surgery, she may recommend a feeding tube to bypass the swallowing process completely.

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