According to the CDC, by the year 2060, almost a quarter of the population in the United States will be over the age of 65. Older adults have more oral health challenges than younger people. By the age of 65, almost every adult will have had at least one cavity, and 2 out of every 3 seniors will have some form of gum disease. According to the American Dental Association, oral health problems are a major source of emergency room visits for the elderly. Unfortunately, because Medicare does not include dental health coverage, many senior citizens don’t get the help they need to prevent serious problems. But routine dental care is vital to the overall wellbeing of the elderly.
What happens to your teeth when you get older?
Most of us have a full set of adult teeth by the time we turn 13, and the average life expectancy in the United States is 78 years. You don’t have to do the math to realize that a lot can happen in that span of time. One of the first things you might notice is the yellowing of your teeth. No matter how good you are with brushing, proteins lodge into the enamel over time, changing the way light moves through the tooth. This is a normal part of the aging process, but your dentist can go over whitening options that will help.
You also have to contend with gravity. As you age, the muscles in your face change and begin to droop. This changes the pressure on your teeth, causing them to shift in your mouth. Couple that with the natural narrowing of your dental arches, and you wind up with teeth that are misaligned. Your back teeth can also tip inward because of many years of using them to chew.
The older a tooth gets, the more susceptible to cracking and breaking due to weakened enamel. Also, as you age, gum tissue naturally becomes thin and begins to recede, leaving your teeth more vulnerable to cavities and gum disease. On top of that, older adults are less sensitive to dental pain because the nerves tend to shrink over time. While this helps reduce tooth sensitivity, seniors lose pain as a warning signal for potential dental problems.
Why is good oral hygiene essential for older adults?
All these changes that happen to the mouth as we get older make good oral care essential as we enter our golden years. Two-thirds of the aging population have some form of periodontal disease, and some wind up with a severe form of gum disease called periodontitis. Periodontitis causes the gums to bleed and become very sore, resulting in problems chewing and even tooth loss. It can also keep a person from eating healthy foods, which can cause other diseases to develop. Gum disease in older adults can be prevented with good senior dental care.
The Oral-systemic Connection
Dental problems in elderly adults are often exasperated by medical conditions and the medications taken to control them. Dry mouth is a side effect in more than 500 commonly used medications that treat common conditions like asthma, high blood pressure and cholesterol, depression, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Dry mouth puts you at risk for a host of dental health problems such as tooth decay, gum disease, and cavities. Medications can suppress the production of saliva, which means bacteria can hang out longer on teeth and gums. Treatment for dry mouth includes special mouthwashes that help keep the mouth moist and wash the teeth to reduce plaque buildup.
Poor dental health also plays a factor in other diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Gum disease causes inflammation in the body, increasing the risk of heart disease. It can also worsen existing heart conditions and make you more susceptible to stroke. Having diabetes puts you at a higher risk for gum disease because too much sugar in the saliva feeds the bacteria that live in your mouth. Keeping these conditions in check while taking good care of your oral health can help minimize the damage.
Oral cancer is another threat to the aging population. Our risk of cancer increases as we get older, and it rises even more for those that smoke or use other tobacco products. Regular visits to your dentist raise the chance of catching oral cancer at an early stage when treatment is more likely to result in a cure.
Oral Hygiene Tips for Seniors
Dental care tips for seniors are similar to what we should be practicing at any age. Brush your teeth twice a day using a soft toothbrush with fluoride toothpaste. Floss at least once per day. Use an antiseptic mouthwash and follow up with a fluoride rinse once or twice a day. However, a few extra steps can benefit the senior community beyond just brushing or flossing.
Take a calcium supplement. Many older adults don’t get enough calcium in their diets, making them susceptible to osteoporosis. Most people worry about falls when talking about osteoporosis, but it can also affect the bones that support your teeth. Taking enough calcium can keep your bones and your teeth strong and healthy.
Drink more water. Hydration is important to saliva production, and if you suffer from dry mouth, sipping water throughout the day helps keep your mouth moist. Drinking water is good for your overall health as well as your oral health.
Take Care of Your Dentures
If you have missing teeth, chances are you have dentures. Keeping your dentures clean is essential to good oral health. Remove and rinse your dentures each time you finish eating. Handle them carefully, so they don’t fall and break. Brush them at least once per day, and soak them in a denture cleaning solution overnight.
Keep up with Routine Dental Visits
Last but not least, be sure to visit your dentist. The American Dental Association recommends seeing your dentist at least twice a year. Your dentist can catch problems early, from tooth decay to cancer. They understand geriatric dentistry and can help you get a handle on a good dental hygiene routine at home. They can help you choose a toothbrush that will be gentle on your gums and give you tips for dealing with your dentures.
Don’t Give Up
Getting older doesn’t necessarily doom you to poor dental health. Many older adults believe that losing their teeth is inevitable, but that isn’t true. If you practice good dental hygiene, there is no reason your teeth shouldn’t last a lifetime.