There have been numerous advancements in the world of oral health over the last few decades, from increased education on the importance of proper care to the ever-evolving sophistication of dental technology. But despite these positive changes, one segment of the population still faces significant challenges when it comes to oral health: seniors.
What makes them more vulnerable compared to other age groups? For starters, natural changes alter our teeth and gums as we age. Teeth begin to darken because of changes to dentin — tissue below the enamel that makes up the tooth itself — while the mouth becomes dry due to reduced saliva flow. Years of chewing also take their toll, causing enamel to break down.
In addition to these factors, seniors may also struggle with their oral health because of certain conditions that make brushing and flossing difficult. Arthritis, for instance, can make these simple motions extraordinarily painful. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs also play a role. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that there are more than 400 commonly used drugs that can cause dry mouth.
While it’s easy to look at all of this and assume the worst — that poor oral health is inevitable for older adults — there is good news. Seniors can maintain healthy mouths and reduce their risk of cavities, gum disease, and everything in between, by following a few best practices. Below are a few that seniors can incorporate into their routines:
Oral health best practices
• Brush at least twice a day using fluoride toothpaste, and floss at least once a day to reduce dental plaque. If arthritis or other conditions make this difficult, ask a loved one for assistance.
• See a dentist regularly for a cleaning and oral exam, even if there are no longer any natural teeth — especially to help identify the presence of pre-cancerous/cancerous lesions.
• Do not use tobacco products of any kind (e.g., cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chewing tobacco).
• Use sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva production.
• Limit alcohol consumption, as alcoholic beverages can increase the risk of oral and throat cancer.
• Drink more water (at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day) to help reduce the risk of dry mouth. As we age, our thirst signals begin to diminish and are thus less reliable. Seniors should carry a water bottle around, and set alarms reminding them of when to hydrate.
• If medication is causing dry mouth, seniors should ask a physician for one that doesn’t produce the specific side effect.
Oral care is about more than just making sure that our breath isn’t bad. Research suggests poor oral health may be linked to endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart, as well as cardiovascular disease. Tooth loss, as a result of periodontal disease or tooth decay, can also make eating more difficult. This can in turn lead to malnutrition.
Because seniors are already at a higher risk for these conditions and others, it’s imperative that they give extra attention to their oral care. Doing so can make a significant impact on their overall wellbeing.