Why Do Seniors Have Trouble Swallowing?

why do seniors have trouble swallowing

Swallowing problems are more common in seniors

Some older adults have trouble swallowing food or liquids.

This serious condition is called dysphagia and could cause malnutrition, dehydration, or aspiration pneumonia.

For caregivers, it’s scary to watch someone who’s having trouble swallowing and not be able to help. 

We explain what dysphagia is, why it’s so serious, common signs of dysphagia, and what causes it.




What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia means difficulty swallowing and is pronounced dis-fay-gee-ah (hear the word here).

It can happen at any age, but is more common in older adults, especially those with acid reflux.

It’s estimated that 15% of seniors and up to 68% of nursing home residents are affected by dysphagia.


Why you should be concerned about swallowing problems

Dysphagia is important to be aware of because it can cause serious health problems for seniors, including:

  • Poor nutrition
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Not taking medication properly
  • Aspiration pneumonia – a lung infection caused by food or liquid particles in the lungs and leading cause of hospitalization and death in nursing home residents


Signs and symptoms of dysphagia

Having trouble swallowing once in a while, usually because of eating too fast or not chewing well, isn’t the same as showing signs of dysphagia.

But if you’re noticing frequent signs of dysphagia, it’s essential to have your older adult visit their doctor for an examination as soon as possible.

Signs of dysphagia include:

  • Coughing while eating or drinking
  • Choking on food, liquids, or medication
  • A gurgly sounding voice, especially after eating or drinking
  • Difficulty swallowing food or drinks
  • Drooling

If you aren’t able to eat meals with your older adult, here are some questions you can ask to find out if they’re having a swallowing problem:

  • Do you often cough or choke after eating or drinking?
  • Does it sometimes feel like food is going down the “wrong way”?
  • Do you often feel like food is stuck in your throat?
  • How long does it take you to eat a meal?
  • Is eating sometimes less enjoyable than it previously was?
  • Have you lost weight recently (without trying)?


What causes dysphagia?

Any problem in the swallowing process can cause trouble.

There are many potential causes for dysphagia, which is why it’s so important to get checked out by a doctor.

Common causes include:


Next Step  Get 7 tips for safely managing dysphagia


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By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Sources: NCBI U.S. National Library of Medicine, American Academy of Otolaryngology, Today’s Geriatric Medicine
Image: Elderly Care


  • Reply February 28, 2021

    Noel Rosney

    Noel Rosney When i was training to be an assistant healthcare nurse i came across patients with swallowing difficulties when i did my work experience in a nursing home. Some of the patients had to have thickner placed in their drinks, this prevented them from aspirating. The thickners would be given in a small tea spoonful and were like sugar particles. They were graded 1 to 4 according to the patients requirements & they were mixed with the fluids eg soft drink, tea, soup. I know of the importance of patients fluids intake . It is vital that the Carer is very familiar with this procedure as well as the Patients medication needs. Thank you Daily Caring for the tips they are most helpful.

    • Reply February 28, 2021


      Thanks for sharing your experience and for the kind feedback! We’re so glad this article is helpful.

  • Reply February 14, 2021

    Jill Roberts

    I always cough when I eat or drink

    • Reply February 19, 2021


      It’s best to speak with your doctor to find out what might be causing this to happen.

  • Reply December 20, 2020

    Mary Greninger

    I two had the barium swallow but was told I was in normal range. But I have 100% of the symptoms you listed. Finding new Dr

    • Reply December 20, 2020


      It’s a good idea to get a second opinion or keep working with your doctor to find the cause of your swallowing issues. It’s possible that there’s a different underlying cause that’s causing these symptoms.

  • Reply September 17, 2019

    Maria liberto

    Dysphagia has cute in 82 year old also has dementia

  • Reply May 6, 2019


    I have been choking for about a year even on water. My doctor ordered a barium swallow test. I was diagnosed with a sliding hernia and a Schatzi’s ring in the esophagus. The ring restricts how much can be swallowed. They gave me a pill to swallow and noted in the report that my esophagus was too narrow for the pill to go through.

    I am scheduled for have my esophagus stretched and learned that sometimes, it has to be stretched again and again. There is a surgical procedure where the ring is cut in places to open up the area. Ho hum!

    • Reply May 6, 2019


      We’re so sorry about the condition affecting your ability to eat and drink. But it’s great that you had it properly diagnosed and that the surgery will be able to help. Wishing you the best outcome possible!

      • Reply February 25, 2021


        Maybe they should be checked for Achalasia. Dilatation should help. I’ve only had it done once. Before surgery have at least three different doctors opinions.

        • Reply February 26, 2021


          It’s important to have their doctor do a thorough checkup to find the cause of any swallowing problems. Each person’s body and health conditions are unique, so it’s essential to have their own doctor make a proper diagnosis and recommend treatments for their specific situation.

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