Dysphagia in Older Adults: Recognizing and Addressing Swallowing Issues-Houston

Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is a common and potentially serious issue that affects older adults. As individuals age, various factors can contribute to the development of dysphagia, which can lead to malnutrition, dehydration, and even aspiration pneumonia. Dr. Bharat Pothuri is one of the leading gastroenterologists in Houston. 

Understanding Dysphagia

Dysphagia is categorized into two main types: oropharyngeal dysphagia and esophageal dysphagia. Oropharyngeal dysphagia refers to difficulties in the oral cavity and throat, such as problems with chewing and initiating the swallowing reflex. Esophageal dysphagia, on the other hand, involves difficulties in the esophagus, leading to sensations of food getting stuck or not moving smoothly down the throat.

Causes and Risk Factors

Several factors contribute to the development of dysphagia in older adults:

  • Muscle Weakness: As people age, muscle strength naturally declines, including the muscles involved in swallowing. This can result in reduced control and coordination during the swallowing process.
  • Neurological Conditions: Neurological disorders like stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia can affect the neural pathways and muscles involved in swallowing.
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Chronic acid reflux can damage the esophagus and lead to swallowing difficulties.
  • Medications: Certain medications can cause dry mouth or affect muscle function, increasing the risk of dysphagia.
  • Structural Changes: Age-related changes to the throat muscles, tissues, and bones can impact the swallowing process.


Recognizing the symptoms of dysphagia is crucial for early intervention. Common symptoms in older adults include:

  • Coughing or Choking: Especially while eating or drinking.
  • Feeling of Food Stuck: Sensation of food stuck in the throat or chest.
  • Pain or Discomfort: Pain while swallowing or a feeling of pressure in the chest.
  • Weight Loss: Unintended weight loss due to reduced food intake.
  • Recurring Pneumonia: Aspiration of food or liquids into the lungs can lead to pneumonia.


Untreated dysphagia can lead to serious health complications, including:

  • Malnutrition and Dehydration: Difficulty swallowing can lead to inadequate nutrient and fluid intake.
  • Aspiration Pneumonia: Inhaling food or liquids into the lungs can cause lung infections.
  • Social Isolation: Fear of choking or embarrassment can lead to avoidance of social eating situations.

Addressing Dysphagia

Addressing dysphagia involves a multidisciplinary approach:

  • Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs): SLPs evaluate swallowing function and recommend exercises to improve muscle strength and coordination.
  • Dietary Modifications: Adjusting food textures, using thickened liquids, and consuming smaller, more frequent meals.
  • Positional Changes: Altering body positions while eating to aid in swallowing.
  • Medication Management: Adjusting medications that contribute to dry mouth or muscle weakness.
  • Surgical Interventions: In severe cases, surgical procedures might be considered to address structural issues.

Dysphagia in older adults is a complex and serious concern that requires careful recognition and intervention. As we age, understanding the technical aspects of swallowing and the factors that contribute to dysphagia becomes crucial for maintaining overall health and well-being.