Dysphagia doesn’t have to be a tough pill to swallow.
Here’s a riddle for you: What requires 50 pairs of muscles and is done at least 600 times a day? If you guessed swallowing, you got it!
Most of us don’t realize how often we swallow, but for many seniors, that simple act can be uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous. Difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia, affects millions of Americans. Nearly 40 percent of adults ages 50 to 80 suffer from dysphagia, according to estimates from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
“The anatomical and physiological changes that take place [as we age], increase the risk for disordered swallowing,” reports Rinki Varindani Desai, M.S., a medical speech-language pathologist based in Rochester, New York.
Recognizing the Signs
Swallowing difficulties often go undiagnosed because the signs can be quite subtle. Common symptoms may include: over-chewing or holding food in the mouth, increased throat clearing during meals, painful swallowing, choking or the sensation of food stuck in the throat, unexplained weight loss and chronic chest infections.
“Older patients frequently report difficulty swallowing pills as the first sign of a swallowing problem,” says Varindani Desai.
If you are diagnosed with this condition, don’t isolate yourself by avoiding social eating situations.
Focus on good oral hygiene. Swallowing-disorder specialists recommend smaller bites, careful chewing, sipping water after each bite and avoiding talking while eating.
Recent research has shown promising results in the reversal of age-related changes. Rehabilitation exercises to strengthen head and neck muscles, accompanied by mouth, throat and tongue exercises, may improve swallowing function. It’s important to discuss the best dysphagia management with a speech-language pathologist and physician before beginning any treatment.
Varindani Desai, who specializes in the rehabilitation of swallowing disorders in adults, ends with food for thought: “Regardless of a diagnosis of dysphagia or severity of the disease, every individual deserves to ‘dine with dignity.’”