Senescent swallowing: impact, strategies, and interventions

Nutr Clin Pract. Jun-Jul 2009;24(3):395-413. doi: 10.1177/0884533609332005.


The risk for disordered oropharyngeal swallowing (dysphagia) increases with age. Loss of swallowing function can have devastating health implications, including dehydration, malnutrition, pneumonia, and reduced quality of life. Age-related changes increase risk for dysphagia. First, natural, healthy aging takes its toll on head and neck anatomy and physiologic and neural mechanisms underpinning swallowing function. This progression of change contributes to alterations in the swallowing in healthy older adults and is termed presbyphagia, naturally diminishing functional reserve. Second, disease prevalence increases with age, and dysphagia is a comorbidity of many age-related diseases and/or their treatments. Sensory changes, medication, sarcopenia, and age-related diseases are discussed herein. Recent findings that health complications are associated with dysphagia are presented. Nutrient requirements, fluid intake, and nutrition assessment for older adults are reviewed relative to dysphagia. Dysphagia screening and the pros and cons of tube feeding as a solution are discussed. Optimal intervention strategies for elders with dysphagia ranging from compensatory interventions to more rigorous exercise approaches are presented. Compelling evidence of improved functional swallowing and eating outcomes resulting from active rehabilitation focusing on increasing strength of head and neck musculature is provided. In summary, although oropharyngeal dysphagia may be life threatening, so are some of the traditional alternatives, particularly for frail, elderly patients. Although the state of the evidence calls for more research, this review indicates that the behavioral, dietary, and environmental modifications emerging in this past decade are compassionate, promising, and, in many cases, preferred alternatives to the always present option of tube feeding.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging
  • Deglutition Disorders / complications
  • Deglutition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Deglutition Disorders / therapy*
  • Dehydration / complications
  • Dehydration / prevention & control
  • Enteral Nutrition / methods
  • Frail Elderly
  • Humans
  • Malnutrition / complications
  • Malnutrition / prevention & control
  • Risk Factors
  • Trachea