Q: Is it true that Alzheimer’s patients can eventually stop swallowing or eating? Why?
A: I am sending this question directly to my co-author Dr. Rosemary Laird, an amazing Geriatrician and Medical Director of the Aging Institute at Health First Hospital system in Melbourne, Florida. Dr. Laird is a wonderful expert in geriatric medicine, a friend, and the co-author of Take Your Oxygen First.
Dr. Laird's answer: As the disease progresses and the changes in the brain move from the memory and thinking centers, it creates "memory loss" in some of the physical parts of the body as well. Even the somewhat automatic actions, such as chewing and swallowing, become uncoordinated and ineffective.
Similar to how you might see a patient with Alzheimer's disease become less steady on their feet or a bit more clumsy when using utensils, a patient may eventually "forget" how to swallow. In some cases, this may lead to drooling. At the very extreme, it may lead to a need to help them swallow via use of a suction machine and soft tube that can be placed in the mouth.
For some patients, these changes in ability to chew and swallow result in their eating and drinking less. For other patients, while they maintain ability to chew and swallow, they lose the usual response to hunger that leads us to eat throughout the day. Later on in the disease, even if they sense hunger, they may not have the ability to get to the refrigerator or pantry and fix or choose something to eat.