My father has an appointment with the gastroenterologist. He says he’s having trouble swallowing some foods, especially cheeseburgers, which are a favorite of his.
Difficulty swallowing is not new for my father. When he was in his early 70s, my parents frequently visited my sister in New Hampshire. On those visits, my father would have difficulty getting his food down during mealtime.
It happened so often that my sister’s son and daughter, ages 4 and 8, would call the kitchen chair my father sat in “Grampy’s choke chair.” The moniker was hilarious to them but probably not so funny to my father.
At that time my father’s diagnosis was dysphasia—difficulty swallowing due to acid reflux.
Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when stomach acids back up into the esophagus and irritate the throat. It can sometimes cause permanent damage as scar tissue develops. The scar tissue can narrow the esophagus, causing difficult swallowing.
Over the next several years my father had his esophagus stretched to reduce the stricture and improve his ability to swallow. He also took prescription medicine to reduce the acid reflux. That protocol seemed to work.
My father’s current swallowing issue is most likely do to his Parkinson’s disease, which can impact muscle control in the throat and therefore affect eating and swallowing. My father is not alone. Dysphagia is a growing health concern in our aging population.
Recent studies suggest that 15 percent of the older population is affected by dysphagia. Why does this condition have higher incidence among older adults?
As we get older, our throat muscles loose mass and elasticity, sometimes affecting the body’s ability to swallow. Additionally, age-related diseases, such as stroke and dementia, contribute to dysphagia in older adults.
Symptoms of dysphagia vary in each person. Some, like my father, experience problems swallowing solid foods but have no trouble with fluids.
Others experience the opposite, where swallowing liquids becomes difficult but they can manage solids without a problem. My mother sometimes has brief coughing fits upon drinking water, as it “goes down the wrong pipe.”
With dysphagia, there’s a risk of food, drink or saliva going down the “wrong way.” It can block the airway, making it difficult to breathe and causing coughing or choking.
My mother-in-law, who also had difficulty swallowing, developed aspiration pneumonia.
Aspiration pneumonia is a chest infection that can develop after accidentally inhaling something, such as a small piece of food. It causes irritation in the lungs, or damages them. Older people are particularly at risk of developing aspiration pneumonia.
Since there is a strong relationship between swallowing ability and malnutrition and pneumonia in older adults, swallowing interventions are often advised. These may include posture adjustments, swallow adjustments, or changes in diet.
Trouble swallowing can be frightening, but it isn’t always a chronic condition.
If you’re experiencing difficulties swallowing, talk to your physician. Early identification of swallowing abnormalities is critical for reducing the likelihood of complications that can negatively impact your health and quality of life.
Nobody should have to worry about choking when they are feasting on a big, tasty cheeseburger.