Today, Americans are not only living longer — we're also retaining our natural teeth longer than ever before. But this rosy picture isn't free of thorns: Older adults tend to require increasingly complex dental treatments; are often more prone to contracting certain diseases; and sometimes find it challenging to keep up with daily oral health practices.
Yet maintaining good oral hygiene is critically important as we age. When problems occur in the mouth, they can cause difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking and smiling — basic functions which can affect both physical and social well-being. It's possible that medications prescribed for other diseases can adversely affect a person's oral health; it's also possible that a decline in oral health can worsen existing maladies (such as diabetes), or even cause systemic (whole-body) inflammation. What other special dental issues do older people face — and what can be done about them?
If you think cavities are just for kids — think again! A recent study found that nearly one-third of people over 65 had untreated dental caries (cavities). In older people, these are found not only in the crown (chewing surface) of the tooth, but also in the root, which may become exposed due to gum recession. Regular dental checkups are the best way to find and treat dental caries; left untreated, they can cause pain, require more complex procedures, and eventually lead to lost teeth.
Gum disease is another major oral health issue faced by older people — and it's presently the leading cause of tooth loss in adults. The disease is caused by plaque bacteria, which thrive on the sticky biofilm that clings to the surface of teeth when they aren't properly cleaned. Poor-fitting dentures can make the problem worse, as can the presence of certain diseases (such as diabetes or cancer).
Sometimes, decreased mobility (due to arthritis or similar conditions) makes routine brushing and flossing more difficult. Special brushes with larger grips and floss holders can help make daily cleaning easier; additionally, therapeutic mouthrinses may be prescribed. In-office treatments can also be effective in bringing gum disease under control.
Oral cancer is a concern at any age, but it's 7 times more likely to show up in a person over 65 — and it causes more deaths in older Americans than skin cancer does. Early detection offers the best chance at controlling the disease, and improves survival rates significantly. A thorough screening for oral cancer should be a part of every older person's routine dental checkup.
Dry mouth (xerostomia) isn't just an annoyance — it can be harmful to your oral health. Aside from its lubricating qualities, saliva contains beneficial digestive enzymes, acid neutralizers, and bacteria-fighting agents. A number of factors may cause the body to produce less saliva than normal — but in older adults, this problem is often due to side effects from prescription or over-the-counter medications. If you're experiencing chronic dryness of the mouth, it's sometimes possible to change your medication, and/or use products designed to relieve these symptoms.
It was once commonly believed that dental problems and the loss of teeth were an inevitable consequence of aging. But here's the fact: Age itself isn't a risk factor for tooth loss; properly cared for, your teeth can last a lifetime. However, it's true that the mouth does change as you age. How can you give yourself the best chance of keeping your natural teeth? You guessed it: Maintain a regular practice of good oral hygiene!
Brush twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush — use one with a special grip, or an electric brush, if it helps. Clean in between your teeth with floss, or another type of interdental cleaner, at least once a day. If you wear dentures, regularly clean and care for them as instructed. Eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. And don't forget to have regular dental exams so that little problems don't turn into major headaches!
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