Mar 14, 2018

Can Dementia Cause Difficulty Swallowing?

Swallowing difficulties, or Dysphagia, are rather common amongst older people, and can be particularly challenging if a person is living with dementia or other age-related disorders.

In fact, choking is a leading cause of premature death in Australian nursing homes.

Swallowing Awareness Day is on Wednesday, 14 March 2018. The theme for the day is: Swallowing is Ageless!

Gaenor Dixon, National President of Speech Pathology Australia, explains that  “up to 30% of Australians over 65 years of age will experience difficulties swallowing at some time. It’s a challenge made even harder for those with Parkinson’s, dementia or who have experienced stroke”

While around 15‐30 per cent of people aged 65 and over living in the community have a swallowing difficulty, this figure rises to over 50 per cent for older Australians living in nursing homes.

In people living with dementia, some degree of difficulty swallowing will occur, and as the condition progresses, swallowing difficulties become more common, though this can vary from person to person.

Dysphagia is any problem with sucking, swallowing, drinking, chewing, eating, controlling saliva, taking medication, or protecting the lungs from food and drink ‘going the wrong way’.

Sometimes, the first sign of a swallowing problem is coughing, gagging or choking when eating and drinking. This can often be a common issue with older people, and at times can simply be mistaken as them “being difficult” or “not liking their food”.

For any older person who has swallowing difficulties, it’s recommended that they or their carer seek the advice of a speech pathologist.

“Speech pathologists are the professionals that can deal with swallowing problems and difficulties,” says Dixon.

Swallowing problems can mean food, drinks or saliva gets into the lungs and this can cause lung infections such as pneumonia.

In fact, one of the most common acute conditions that people in the later stages of dementia end up getting is pneumonia.

Pneumonia is where sections of one or both lungs, fills with fluid. If not treated properly, pneumonia can be fatal.

Another dysphagia related health issue is reflux. Reflux is a problem where the valves in the oesophagus cause the contents of the stomach (like food, drink or stomach acid) to come back up, sometimes reaching as far up as the throat and mouth.

Statistics reveal that between 1998 and 2005, the elderly accounted for 50% of all patients diagnosed with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).

“Swallowing disorders remain largely invisible and poorly understood by the general community and they are rarely addressed in government policy.”

In a recent submission to government, Speech Pathology Australia argued that careful consideration should be given to older adults with swallowing difficulties. In particular, those who are dependent on assistance to eat and drink.

The Association contended that failure to provide this support was a form of neglect and placed the person at significant risk of potential death through choking.

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