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.

It can also make mealtime a scary experience for both you and your senior.


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 know about because it can cause many 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 that your senior could have 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 swallowing difficulty is happening frequently, it’s important to talk with a doctor.

These signs might indicate someone has dysphagia:

  • 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.

Some common causes:


Bottom line

Difficulty swallowing is a serious problem for seniors. For caregivers, it’s scary to watch someone who’s having trouble swallowing and not be able to help. If you’re seeing frequent signs of dysphagia, the best thing to do is to have your senior visit their doctor ASAP.


You might also like:
Dehydration in Elderly is Dangerous
Why Do Seniors Lose Their Appetites?
3 Simple Ways to Improve Senior Dental Health


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


  • 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!

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