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Chewing Problems in the Elderly

Chewing Problems in the ElderlyChewing is an essential part of the digestive process. It is also known as mastication. By breaking down the food into smaller particles, the food can then be swallowed and pass lower down the gut. Here it will be digested further and the nutrients will be absorbed into the bloodstream. It would be difficult to virtually impossible to eat solid foods without first chewing. However, there are several causes of chewing problems which is more frequently seen in the elderly that greatly hampers proper nutrition.

Chewing Process

The entire mouth, various structures of the face and even the brain and nerves are involved in chewing. Here is a quick overview of the parts involved in the process of chewing.

  • Teeth grind and crush foods into smaller pieces.
  • The tongue pushes food around and holds it in place for the teeth to break it down.
  • Saliva helps with lubrication during chewing.
  • The mouth and lips prevents food from spilling out during chewing.
  • Muscles of the face move the jaw up and down and side to side in order to grind and crush the food.
  • These muscles of mastication are controlled by nerves that stem directly from the brain.
  • The process of chewing is coordinated by certain brain centers that control the face muscles and tongue muscles.

Causes of Chewing Problems

A chewing problem may arise with the :

  • Teeth and gum
  • Tongue
  • Salivary glands
  • Mouth and lips
  • Muscles of mastication
  • Nerves
  • Brain

The more common of these problems arises with conditions such as :

  • Tooth decay, broken and missing teeth
  • Poorly fitting dentures
  • Dry mouth
  • Mouth sores
  • Mouth cancer
  • Fractured jaw
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders
  • Mouth infections like thrush
  • Stroke
  • Chronic diseases like Parkinson’s disease, myasthenia gravis and multiple sclerosis

Most of these causes are more frequently seen in the elderly and difficulty chewing is therefore a common problem in the senior years.

Treatment of Chewing Difficulties

There is no single treatment for difficulty chewing. It depends on the cause and may therefore involve medication, surgery and other therapies such as radiation. In severe cases, proper nutrition may have been impaired for a period of time to the extent that other measures are necessary. A person may be dehydrated or malnourished and nutrition through a drip may be necessary – either directly into the gut (enteral) or into the vein (parenteral), This, however, is an uncommon complication of not eating properly as a result of chewing problems.

Coping with Chewing Problems

There various measures to deal with difficulty chewing and this depends on the type of underlying problem and severity of the condition.

  • Eat softer foods that are cut into small pieces.
  • Slowly chew as much as possible before swallowing.
  • Beverages like tea, coffee and soft drinks do not provide adequate nutrition.
  • Special meal replacements that are semi-solid to fluid in consistency can aid with supplementation of nutrition for one or two meals in the day.
  • An entirely liquid diet can make the muscles in the gut shrink so it is important to have at least some solid particles, even if very small, within the meal.

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