Hong Kong study sheds light on an issue that’s hard to swallow

Elderly minders urged to take care as new research finds many senior citizens with visual impairments risk choking or worse

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 12:57am

Many visually impaired elderly have difficulties swallowing their food, with the majority of them being unaware of the problem, according to a study.

At least 61 per cent of 398 elderly with severe low vision reported to have trouble swallowing, research conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Swallowing Research Laboratory found.

Study participants with the issue showed symptoms such as feeling discomfort in the throat during and after mealtimes, coughing, and swallowing food into their windpipe.

Dr. Karen Chan Man-kei, a speech therapist, said the condition is brought on by ageing, when peoples’ throat muscles begin to weaken, or they lose control over the coordination of various muscles.

The research team, who visited four nursing homes of the Hong Kong Society for the Blind, conducted face-to-face clinical assessments with 109 residents over the age of 65 between December last year and June.

Around 60 per cent showed signs of swallowing difficulties after a simple water drinking test. As many as 90 per cent of those with the difficulty were not aware they had the problem.

While the proportion of elderly with visual impairment who had swallowing difficulties was similar to those without any visual impairment, Chan said self-awareness levels differed.

“Their self-awareness of the problems were much poorer compared to elderly who do not have any visual impairment,” Chan said.

She explained that elderly with normal vision would be able to notice that their caretaker had cut their food into smaller pieces, while it was difficult for those with visual impairment to pick up on such cues.

Senior citizens could end up choking on their food or in serious cases, develop aspiration pneumonia. Elderly who mistakenly swallow bits of food or liquid into their lungs could also cause inflammation, Chan explained.

The research findings also showed that swallowing difficulties had a negative impact on participants’ quality of life, and that they were less likely to be social while eating and drinking.

Chan added that elderly who have dementia, or other reduced cognitive abilities, exacerbated the issue as they faced difficulties voicing their problems.

Elderly who have swallowing difficulties are recommended to stay away from sticky foods and caretakers should ensure they are sitting upright when they are being fed.