Our oral health is more important than we might realize. Our mouths act as the entry point to our digestive and respiratory tracts. Along with our body’s natural defenses, proper oral care, like brushing our teeth and flossing, work to keep bacteria under control. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 35% of seniors in the U.S. do not undergo an annual dental visit.
As we age, our risk of developing oral health problems can increase, putting us at risk of developing dental-related illnesses and diseases. Many older adults rely on medication for various health concerns, which can harm their oral health. While taking care of our teeth might seem like a small issue, ignoring our dental health can impact our overall wellness in different ways.
Oral Health Concerns for Older Adults
As they advance in age, older adults are more susceptible to oral health problems that can negatively impact one’s quality of life. Here are a few of the most common oral health issues among older adults:
Tooth and root decay
According to the CDC, 1 in 4 older adults have untreated tooth decay. The tooth roots become exposed as gum tissue begins to recede from the tooth, causing toothaches, difficulties eating, chewing, and swallowing. Those with severe cases might also experience swelling and pus around the tooth.
This disease is caused by plaque build-up and can be made worse by tobacco use, improper bridges and dentures, poor diets, and food left in the teeth. Also, cancers, anemia, and diabetes can increase the risk of gum disease. Gum disease is common in older adults and while adults living with it has decreased since the 1970’s thanks to better dental health, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1999-2004), approximately 17.2% of seniors over 65 have gum disease and 10.5% have it severally.
Tooth darkening and loss
As we age, our enamel layer weakens, allowing dentin, or the tissue underneath the enamel, to show through, causing the teeth to appear yellow. While darkened teeth can be caused by consuming stain-causing foods and beverages, it can also be a sign of a more serious issue.
Oral and pharyngeal cancers are most common in older adults. Many people are diagnosed around 62 years old.
Medications, cancer treatments, and other underlying diseases or conditions can lead to dry mouth. The reduction in saliva flow can dramatically increase the risk of cavities.
Loss of taste is not uncommon in older adults, but poor dental health can contribute. Diseases, medications, and dentures can all increase the risk of decreased taste.
Oral Hygiene Tips for Seniors
The good news is that dental care is something that can be done easily from the comfort of your own home. In addition to getting an annual dental exam, you can also follow these simple steps to reduce the risk of infection, disease, and overall poor dental health.
• Practice good hygiene. Brushing and flossing your teeth every day can help remove plaque, which causes tooth decay and gum disease. Consider using fluoride toothpaste, a soft-bristle toothbrush, and brush after breakfast and before going to sleep. If you have trouble flossing, there are alternatives such as a pick or handheld flossing brush. Be sure to take out dentures for at least 4 hours or overnight and clean them regularly.
• Monitor changes in your oral health. While we’re used to monitoring changes in our skin, like texture or moles, we need to do the same in our mouths. If you notice a new sore spot, lump, or white patch in your mouth, you should consult your doctor or dentist.
• See your dentist regularly. While dental needs vary from person to person, most dentists recommend one to two checkups and cleanings per year. You might consider consulting your dentist to see what your individual needs are to maintain proper oral health.
• Lead a healthy lifestyle. Our diets and lifestyles can have an impact on our oral health. Having a healthy diet and limiting sugary foods and drinks can help prevent tooth decay. Smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco can increase your risk of gum disease and mouth cancer.
• Consult your doctor. If you’re experiencing dry mouth, make sure to consult your doctor. Dry mouth can make eating and talking difficult and increase your risk of tooth decay and infection.
What Happens During a Dental Exam
If it’s been a while since your last dental exam or you are preparing for a visit to a new dentist, you can expect your dentist to ask you the following questions about your dental history:
• When was your last dental appointment?
• Have you noticed any changes occurring in your mouth?
• Are you experiencing any tooth sensitivity?
• Do you have trouble chewing, tasting, or swallowing?
• Are you having any pain, discomfort, soreness, or bleeding?
After your dentist goes through your history, they will proceed with the examination by evaluating your skin for moles or discoloration, your bite, jaw, salivary glands and lymph nodes, interior cheeks, your tongue, and other inner areas.
Your dentist will also check your dentures to see if there are any cracks or worn out spaces. If you’re nervous about your exam, you can always call ahead of time and ask the dental staff what to expect upon your visit.
Paying for Dental Care
Traditional Medicare plans don’t cover routine dental care. Instead, organizations like AARP offer supplemental insurance plans for their members and cover dental cleanings and exams. Discount dental plans are also a good option for those looking for coverage. You can search for a reduced dental plan through the National Association of Dental Plans. Once you select a dentist within the network, you can expect to pay between 10 to 60% less than the typical fee.
Dental Care at Maplewood Senior Living
Our communities at Maplewood Senior Living provide robust healthcare services, including dental care for residents.
Brian Geyser, APRN-BC, MSN, VP Clinical Innovation & Population Health at Maplewood Senior Living told us, “We know good oral health is critical for older adults. Taking good care of the mouth and teeth not only reduces the possibility of gum disease, dry mouth, oral cancer, and infection, but it can help prevent things like pneumonia, heart disease, hypertension, and other non-oral conditions. That’s why we offer on-site dental services in all of our Maplewood communities.”
If you’re interested in hearing more about our offerings, or to schedule a tour, please contact us.