There was a time when many people associated growing older with wearing dentures, conjuring up the image of Grandma putting her teeth in a jar at night.
Indeed, many older Americans continue to wear false teeth or have dental implants — according to the American College of Prosthodontists more than 35 million Americans don’t have any natural teeth — but we should not assume that losing your teeth is a normal part of aging.
Preventing Dental Issues
Good oral care can help prevent tooth loss, which is caused by tooth decay, gum disease, injury, cancer or tremendous wear and tear. In fact, caring for teeth and gums should always be a regular part of good, daily hygiene regardless of age.
In addition to brushing after meals (at least twice daily with a flouride toothpaste) and flossing — important daily activities for people of all ages — older adults should pay close attention to any signs of trouble associated with oral health and be sure to report potential problems to a dentist during routine, twice-yearly checkups and cleanings.
Quickly flagging troublesome issues — such as gum recession — can help prevent further deterioration. What’s more, problems with teeth and gums may signal problems elsewhere in the body. For example, dry mouth and gum disease often occur in people who have diabetes, but may not yet know it. Good blood glucose control, therefore, is also important in preventing oral health problems.
Some of the more common issues older adults encounter with oral health and what you can do to prevent or treat them follow.
Xerostomia occurs in roughly 30 percent of adults 65 or older and 40 percent of those 80 years or older. While dry mouth is often a side effect of medication — particularly if a patient is taking multiple medications — it can also occur as a comorbidity of diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s Disease.
Having less saliva in the mouth raises the risk for tooth decay and can also make dentures uncomfortable, so it’s important not to ignore this condition. It can be treated by drinking or sipping water throughout the day, avoiding alcoholic beverages or those high in sugar or caffeine, using artificial saliva (sold over-the-counter in most pharmacies), sucking on sugarless hard candy or changing medications and/or medication dosages.
Gum disease develops when plaque builds up along and under the gum line, causing the gums to recede. There are two kinds of gum disease: gingivitis, a mild condition that is reversible; and periodontitis, a more severe form that causes the gums to pull away from the teeth, forming pockets where infections can grow. It also damages the bone and connective tissue that holds teeth in place. Ultimately, this can loosen teeth and cause them to fall out.
You can prevent gum disease by brushing thoroughly (brushes that rotate in a circular motion are recommended), flossing and having regular cleanings. Eating a well-balanced diet and not smoking or chewing tobacco will also help.
The risk for developing oral cancer increases with age, especially if you smoke or drink a lot of alcohol. The human papilloma virus (HPV) has also been associated with some oral cancers. Certain strains are covered in the HPV vaccine that is given in adolescence.
Report any changes in your mouth, especially pain, to your provider immediately, as treatment for oral cancer works best if caught early. Symptoms include irritations, lumps or thick patches in the mouth, lip or throat; white or red patches in the mouth; the sense that something is caught in your throat; difficulty chewing or swallowing or moving the jaw or tongue; numbness in any part of the mouth; swelling of the jaw; or pain in one ear without any hearing loss.