Dysphagia is not considered a normal part of ageing; however, it can occur due to the physiological ageing process, especially in people over 80. Older people may have difficulty swallowing (mild) or may not be able to swallow at all (severe).
The ability to swallow can be affected by:
- loss of muscle mass and strength
- faitigue or exhaustion
- loss of dentition
- a decrease in mouth and tongue movements
- changes in eating habits and taste buds (often due to loss of senses of taste and smell)
- extended time in eating and drinking
- difficulty managing oral secretions1
- food taking longer to travel down the oesophagus to the stomach.
For older people in hospital, swallowing difficulties can prolong recovery time and contribute to functional decline, frailty and loss of independence. Severe dysphagia is often indicative a person is in the end stage of their disease.
Hospital provides an ideal opportunity to identify signs of swallowing difficulties and help older patients achieve and maintain optimal nutrition and hydration during their stay. This assists us to prevent cascading problems such as delirium, incontinence, falls and pressure injuries.
1. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, Guidelines for a Palliative Approach for Aged Care in the Commuity Setting - Best practice guidelines for the Australian Context, 2011: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, Canberra.