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Oral health for older adults

Oral health, regardless of age, is integral to overall good health. However, oral health is an important but often overlooked aspect of an older adult’s general health. Daily oral hygiene, the ability to access routine professional oral health services, and oral health education are all key factors that can improve the oral health of older Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-fourth of persons age 65 and older have no remaining teeth. Nearly one-third of older adults have untreated tooth decay. Severe gum disease is associated with chronic disease and severe health conditions including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease.

Common oral health problems for seniors

Whether caring for natural or false teeth, daily oral hygiene can help older adults be free of oral pain, maintain a well balanced diet, enjoy interpersonal relationships, and keep a positive self-image. Without practicing good oral health, advancing age can put older adults at risk for a number of oral health problems, including:

  • Dry mouth
  • Diminished sense of taste
  • Tooth and root decay
  • Gum disease
  • Uneven jawbone caused by tooth loss
  • Denture-induced tissue inflammation
  • Overgrowth of fungus in the mouth, known as thrush
  • Attrition (loss of teeth structure by mechanical forces)
  • Oral cancer

Regular oral health care can improve and prevent oral health problems. Here are some things you can do about some of the oral health issues facing seniors.

Dry mouth

Dry mouth happens when there is not enough saliva, or spit, to keep the mouth wet. It can make it hard to eat, swallow, taste, and even speak. Dry mouth can accelerate tooth decay and other infections of the mouth. Many common medicines can cause this problem.

There are things to do that might help. Try sipping water or sugarless drinks. Don’t smoke, and avoid alcohol and caffeine. Sugarless hard candy or sugarless gum that is a little tart may help. The dentist or doctor might suggest using artificial saliva to keep your mouth wet.

Tooth decay

Teeth are covered in a hard, outer coating called enamel. Every day, a thin film of bacteria called dental plaque builds up on your teeth. The bacteria in plaque produce acids that can harm enamel and cause cavities. Brushing and flossing your teeth can prevent decay, but once a cavity forms, a dentist has to fix it.

Use fluoride toothpaste to protect teeth from decay. If the senior is at a higher risk for tooth decay (for example, because of dry mouth due to a medical condition or medicines), more fluoride might be needed. The dentist or dental hygienist might give a fluoride treatment during an office visit or might suggest the use a fluoride gel or mouth rinse at home.

Gum disease

Gum disease begins when plaque builds up along and under your gum line. This plaque causes infections that hurt the gum and bone that hold the teeth in place. Gum disease might make gums tender and more likely to bleed. This problem, called gingivitis, can often be fixed by brushing and flossing every day.

A more severe form of gum disease, called periodontitis, must be treated by a dentist. If not treated, this infection can ruin the bones, gums, and other tissues that support the teeth. Over time, the teeth might have to be removed.

To prevent gum disease:

  • Brush teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss once a day.
  • Visit a dentist regularly for a checkup and cleaning.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking increases the risk for gum disease.

How to clean the teeth and gums

There is a right way to brush and floss teeth. Every day:

  • Gently brush the teeth on all sides with a soft-bristle brush and fluoride toothpaste.
  • Use small circular motions and short back-and-forth strokes.
  • Brush carefully and gently along the gum line.
  • Lightly brush the tongue to help keep the mouth clean.
  • Clean around the teeth with dental floss. Careful flossing removes plaque and leftover food that a toothbrush can’t reach.
  • Rinse after flossing.

People with arthritis or other conditions that limit hand motion may find it hard to hold and use a toothbrush. Some helpful tips are:

  • Use an electric or battery-operated toothbrush.
  • Slide a bicycle grip or foam tube over the handle of the toothbrush.
  • Buy a toothbrush with a larger handle.
  • Attach the toothbrush handle to the hand with a wide elastic band.

Care of dentures

Sometimes, false teeth (dentures) are needed to replace badly damaged teeth. Partial dentures may be used to fill in one or more missing teeth. Dentures might feel strange at first. In the beginning, the dentist might want to see a patient more often to make sure the dentures fit. Over time, the gums will change shape, and the dentures might need to be adjusted or replaced. Be sure to let a dentist handle such adjustments.

Also, be careful when wearing dentures, because it might be harder for you to feel hot foods and drinks or notice bones in your food. When learning to eat with dentures, it might be easier if you:

  • Start with soft, non-sticky food.
  • Cut your food into small pieces.
  • Chew slowly using both sides of your mouth.

Keep dentures clean and free from food that can cause stains, bad breath, or swollen gums. Brush them every day with a denture-care product. Take the dentures out at night, and soak them in water or a denture-cleansing liquid.

Oral cancer

Cancer of the mouth can grow in any part of the mouth or throat. It is more likely to happen in people over the age of 40. A dental checkup is a good time for the dentist to look for signs of oral cancer. Pain is not usually an early symptom of the disease. Treatment works best before the disease spreads. Even if all natural teeth are gone, visit the dentist for regular oral cancer exams.

You can lower your risk of getting oral cancer in a few ways:

  • Do not use tobacco products, such as cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, chewing tobacco, snuff, pipes, or cigars.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Use lip balm with sunscreen.

Information courtesy of the Administration on Aging and the National Institute on Aging

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