Therapeutic lollipops?

Let's face it, lollipops can be pretty appealing, and for those now living with later stage dementia they are very likely to be remembered as a rare and treasured treat.

So reported here is a clever way to use that to the advantage of people living with dementia.

We know that issues with coordinating swallowing are very common as people move into the later stages of dementia. Swallowing might seem simple as, for most of us, there is no need to give it much conscious thought, but in fact, it's an extremely complex series of steps for the brain to coordinate and those often become mixed up in dementia. 

And, like all coordinated muscle activities, its 'use it or lose it': swallowing gets worse more quickly than it should if people reduce the amount of food they eat. And that can happen as a consequence of dementia itself, or if they have experienced it not going down easily, or when food textures need to be altered (think minced or puree meals) making people less inclined to eat. The end result is not only inadequate nutrition, but the muscles in the mouth and throat don't get the exercise they need to help out, so it continues....

So using sucking lollipops to 'train' oral musculature is a really great idea! 

They were actually devising a way to measure changes in swallowing ability by determining how much the lollipop reduced in size in a specific time period. And while this was a relatively small study, the people whose sucking ability did improve also gained some weight and were able to eat more food. Training and rebuilding swallowing capacity can mean that those who have needed to eat only pureed food for example, could possibly be able to safely swallow a greater range of food textures. That is just so important in dementia when weight loss is a debilitating problem and when being able to eat 'normal' (not texture modified) foods is paramount to quality of life. 

One thing that is important to note is that swallowing ability can decline in dementia (due to progression of dementia itself) to such an extent that even sucking a lollipop and swallowing the mix of saliva and dissolved lollipop can be a problem - the liquid can end up in the lungs instead of the stomach - so, that needs to be considered. If an individual is already needing to have the liquids they drink thickened, you will need the advice of a speech pathologist about trying it, but for others who are not eating as well as they could do, it might be worth a try. Also, lollipops are sugary treats: but this is not about sucking them all day - maybe one a day or every couple of days to 'retrain' oral muscles - and if the end result is a greater ability to eat all sorts of food, in my opinion that's a plus that outweighs a bit of sugar!

If you are in any way concerned about swallowing ability, check with a qualified speech pathologist who can assess individual capacity and discuss this research with them.