Thickeners and other ways to help older adults with swallowing problems

By Diana Zuckerman, PhD

National Center for Health Research

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thickeners and swallowing issuesOlder adults face numerous health problems that younger adults never imagine.  Since eating is an essential daily activity that most of us think of as pleasurable, one of the most upsetting problems of aging is difficulty swallowing, which can change meal time from an enjoyable pastime to a difficult challenge, and can eventually cause very serious health problems.

Anyone can have a swallowing disorder, but it is more likely in the elderly.  Normal aging causes reduced muscle tone in the pharynx and esophagus and other changes that affect swallowing. Patients who are very elderly, especially those with dementia, sometimes forget how to perform activities of daily living, including normal chewing and swallowing.  A common problem among the elderly is coughing or choking because the food or liquid is entering the windpipe.  This is called aspiration, and if it happens frequently the person could be at risk of developing pneumonia

Serious swallowing problems can also occur with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions, reflux disease, stroke, head or spinal cord injury, or cancer of the head, neck or esophagus.

Regardless of the cause of swallowing problems, some experts believe that changing a person’s diet by adding thickeners can be helpful to some people.  Other experts question that.  This article will answer 3 key questions:

  1. Is there anything you can do to prevent swallowing difficulties before they develop in older adults?
  2. Is the use of thickeners proven to be safe and effective for the elderly?
  3. What thickeners are best for which patients?

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