While older adults have many of the same symptoms and concerns as younger patients, they are at higher risk for many oral health problems. Other medical issues, financial concerns and less attention to their teeth and gums can all contribute to a decline in oral health, and impact their overall health.
Nearly 1/3 of older adults have untreated tooth decay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is associated with a higher incidence of gum disease, which is associated with diabetes, heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease.
Whether caring for natural teeth or dentures, those 65 and older should continue to follow the same dental regimen they did in their early years. Some of the issues that often arise, and complicate their dental care, include:
- Living on a fixed income
- No access to dental insurance after retirement
- Limited access to transportation
- Denture-induced tissue inflammation
- Dry mouth from medications
- Gum disease and decay of the roots of teeth
- Uneven jaw bone caused by tooth loss
- Thrush - an overgrowth of bacteria in the mouth
- Increased risk of oral cancer
One problem often leads to another. Patients with severe arthritis can’t brush and floss effectively. Those with missing teeth or ill-fitting dentures find it difficult to eat a healthy diet. If taking multiple medications, patients often experience dry mouth, which can make it difficult to chew and eat properly, and lead to cavities and gum disease.
The best solution is to floss and brush your teeth thoroughly twice daily, using a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Aim to visit the dentist twice a year for a cleaning and oral exam. The cost of that visit is small compared to the cost of neglecting your mouth. Use an antibacterial mouth wash to reduce the risk of plaque and gum disease. Most importantly get to know your mouth. Pay close attention to any pain or sensitivity. It is better to address a problem sooner than later, especially if something doesn’t feel right.
If patients lack dental insurance, and paying out of pocket is not an option, find out whether Medicare or Medicaid covers your dental visits. Unfortunately, routine dental exams are not always covered, but medically-necessary procedures generally are, so in the case of a serious issue, you may be reimbursed.
The good news is that getting older, in itself, is not the problem, and people are keeping their teeth for longer now than ever before. However, those who take good care of their teeth, understand their limitations, and respond quickly when issues arise, are most likely to maintain their oral health - and their overall health - long term.