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How Aging Affects Our Swallowing Ability

Byline: Rebecca Leonard, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Otolaryngology, UC Davis

[Editors note: Click on the image below to view a 16 second video fluoroscopy clip of a swallow by a 20-something year old (on the left) versus a 70-something year old (on the right). Notice how smoothly liquids glide down the throat of the younger subject versus the effort and time required by the older subject to clear his throat. Comment — How nice it would be to be young again! Video provided courtesy of Rebecca Leonard.]

Swallowing difficulty (dysphagia) is a common consequence of many medical conditions, including stroke, chronic diseases that affect the nervous system and surgeries that affect the head and neck.  But swallowing difficulty can also be associated with aging.  In fact, it has been estimated that as many as 20% of individuals over the age of 50 years, and most individuals by the age of 80 years, experience some degree of swallowing difficulty. Individuals over the age of 65 years accounted for 12.9% of the U.S. population in 2009, and are expected to account for 19% of the population by 2030.  These large and growing numbers motivate us to understand all we can about how aging affects swallowing.  Hopefully, what we learn will help us treat, and possibly prevent, dysphagia in the elderly.

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