Your teeth change as you age. Good oral hygeine habits will prevent problems and preserve your smile.
As with many things in life, your oral health is likely to change over the years. The good news is that according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more people 65 and over are keeping their natural teeth than ever before. This means that in today's world, you may be able to avoid dentures entirely if you properly care for your teeth. However, as you age, you have a higher risk of developing periodontal (gum) disease, dry mouth, and oral cancers, so you have to remain extremely diligent in your oral care.
Aging and Oral Health Problems: Why Seniors Are More at Risk
As you get older, your mouth changes in subtle ways that can end up having a big impact on your oral health. For example, the nerves in your teeth can become smaller, making your teeth less sensitive to cavities or other problems. If problems like cavities and gum disease go unnoticed and untreated, they can lead to tooth loss.
Another leading cause of oral health issues (such as cavities) is dry mouth. According to the American Dental Association, over 500 prescription and over-the-counter medications (OTC), many of them for common conditions such as high cholesterol or blood pressure, list dry mouth as a possible side effect. With most seniors taking, on average, about four to five different prescription medications and most likely an OTC or two, it's likely that one or more may contribute to oral health problems.
Oral Health Challenges and How to Manage Them
Oral health issues can mean more than just tooth pain and sore gums. Dental problems can affect the way we speak, swallow and chew, as well as our self-esteem.
Aging and oral health problems don't have to go hand-in-hand. Seeing a dentist regularly and maintaining good oral health habits can protect your teeth and gums. Good dental practices include:
- Brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste
- Flossing daily
- Eating a well-balanced diet
- Not smoking or using tobacco products
Read on to learn more about common oral health issues and their treatment.
Periodontal Disease (aka Gum Disease)
Gum disease is caused by plaque that builds up around the teeth. One of the reasons gum disease is so prevalent among older adults is that it often has no symptoms in the early stages. It's not until it's progressed to loosened teeth and recessed gums, which happen over the course of many years, that people seek treatment. Advanced gum disease can lead to tooth loss.
Regular dentist visits and dental cleanings can help prevent or treat gum disease. At home, you can use an antiseptic mouthwash in addition to regular good oral hygiene practices.
Lack of saliva is more than just a minor nuisance. Saliva is important for washing away harmful bacteria that can cause cavities and gum disease. When saliva production is compromised, eating and swallowing can be difficult.
Treatment can be as simple as chewing sugar-free gum and drinking plenty of water. You can also use OTC oral moisturizers or a humidifier in your bedroom at night.
Oral cancers include cancers of the mouth, tongue, and throat. Age and tobacco use are a double whammy for these types of cancers. Some oral cancers have few early symptoms making it difficult to detect. As with most cancers, the earlier it's detected the better.
Regular dental visits can help, but you should also look for changes in your mouth, lips, and tongue. The American Dental Association lists open sores, white or reddish patches, and noticeable changes in the mouth that last for more than two weeks as some of the early signs.
Most people who have lost all their teeth, either through gum disease or injury, or just a few teeth, have dentures. Dentures make it easier to chew, swallow and eat as well as restore your appearance. Even with dentures, good oral hygiene is important. Denture care tips include:
- Brush your dentures with a soft bristle toothbrush and a denture cleaner or mild hand soap daily.
- Brush your tongue, gums, and roof of mouth before inserting your dentures.
- Store your dentures in a denture cleaning solution or water.
American Dental Association (ADA), Aging and Oral Health
ADA, Missing Teeth
National Institutes of Health (NIH), Older Adults and Oral Health
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Adult Oral Health
Harvard Medical School, The Aging Mouth and How to Keep it Younger
WebMD, Caring for Your Dentures