Choking is the second biggest killer in Australian nursing homes

Swallowing is something most Australians take for granted.

That’s why on Swallowing Awareness Day, Speech Pathology Australia is highlighting the fact that for some Australians their inability to swallow properly is putting them at risk of choking.

Choking is a leading cause of premature death in Australian nursing homes. After falls, choking is the biggest killer of residents.

Swallowing Awareness Day is tomorrow, March 14 and the theme is ‘Swallowing is Ageless!’.

While around 15‐30 percent of people aged 65 and over living in the community have a swallowing difficulty, this figure rises to over 50 percent for older Australians living in nursing homes. People who suffer from age-related conditions such as stroke, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease are also likely to have a swallowing difficulty.

An analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics population and Australian Institute of Health and Welfare nursing home data on deaths reported to coroners, found that after falls, choking was the second largest cause of death in aged care facilities.

These figures highlight that older Australians living with swallowing difficulties should be recognised as a vulnerable population that requires specific protections and safeguards.

In a recent submission to government, Speech Pathology Australia argued that careful consideration should be given to older adults with swallowing difficulties. In particular, those who are dependent on assistance to eat and drink. The Association contended that failure to provide this support was a form of neglect and placed the person at significant risk of potential death through choking.

The average Australian swallows 900 times a day. That’s around three times an hour during sleep, once per minute while awake and even more during meals. It’s something every Australian is doing. Unlike the weather, very few of us are talking about it.

Swallowing Awareness Day in 2018 is an opportunity to bring attention to swallowing disorders and to connect people with speech pathologists, the professionals who can help.

The Association estimates around 1 million Australians have difficulty with swallowing. However, swallowing disorders remain largely invisible, poorly understood by the general community, and rarely addressed in government policy.

Swallowing problems can mean food, drinks or saliva gets into the lungs (aspiration) and this can cause lung infections (pneumonia). Severe swallowing complications, including choking, can lead to death, while other swallowing complications can lead to poor nutrition, dehydration, health complications, and social isolation.

Gaenor Dixon, Speech Pathology Australia National President, said ‘A swallowing problem can occur at any stage of life. Swallowing is a skill developed from infancy. Babies born prematurely or children with abnormalities with the structure of their head, neck and face, such as cleft lip or palate can have difficulty feeding.

‘Almost half of everyone who has had a stroke will have a swallowing problem. And 69 per cent of people with Parkinson’s disease will have swallowing difficulties, as will 25 per cent of people with Multiple Sclerosis.

‘Swallowing Awareness Day is an opportunity for all of us to learn more about swallowing difficulties and how they impact on the lives of our friends, neighbours and our wider community.