I am sure you have heard the saying “ageing is not for the faint hearted” but have you heard of “dysphagia?” Dysphagia refers to the condition that affects one in three US adults today and describes the condition known as difficulty swallowing.

The worrying statistics related to dysphagia is that, after patients are diagnosed, a quarter of them die within 30 days, and approximately 50 percent die within a year! As more and more people are diagnosed with this condition researchers at Johns Hopkins University have conducted a study to examine the changes that occur in the swallowing process as people age. They hope that their results will lead to help in the process of slowing down the progression of the condition, therefore saving millions of lives.

About 33 to 84 percent of adults will have a swallowing disorder in their lifetime, according to lead study author Dr Alba Azola, resident in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “We’ve always known people have difficulties swallowing when they grow older,” Dr Azola said. “What we wanted to know was what changes occur and when do they become a problem.”

31 adults, between the ages of 62 and 91 years old, without a history of swallowing disorders were recruited for the study.The participants were guided through a video-fluoroscopic swallow study; a test that examines how well a person swallows food and liquid. The results were then compared to the results of a group of 33 people, between the ages of 18 and 28 years old, who underwent the same test.

Researchers analyzed the movements of the anatomic structures involved in swallowing. This included how long the windpipe was closed off during the swallow, how long it took to close the airway and which swallowing activities were used to prevent food from getting into the lungs. The results showed that it took significantly longer for older adults to actually swallow the food and they were more likely to get it actually stuck in their throat. This delay in the food getting into the throat meant that the normal “block off” that normally occurs to protect the food getting into the airway or liquid from entering the lungs was not triggering quickly enough which could ultimately result in the increased risk of aspiration or pneumonia. “As people grow older their muscles become weaker and smaller,” said Dr Azola, adding that this also applies to muscles in the mouth. “Not only is this disorder uncomfortable, it can result in serious health complications.”

Signs and symptoms of the disorder includes, pain while swallowing, drooling, having frequent heartburn, unexpectedly losing weight, being unable to swallow and having to cut food into smaller pieces because of trouble swallowing.

Dr Azola said to prevent or slow down the prevalence of this disorder, doctors should find ways for at-risk adults to increase the strength in the muscles involved in swallowing.