No part of your body is immune to aging — including your mouth, teeth and gums.
In fact, the risk for some oral health problems increases with age, particularly if you are taking multiple medications or have developed chronic diseases such as diabetes, which can affect the gums. Regular dental checkups and good dental hygiene, therefore, become more important than ever.
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), oral health conditions associated with aging include dry mouth (also known as xerostomia), root and tooth decay, periodontitis (a serious gum infection) and increased sensitivity to some of the medications used in dental care, such as anesthetics.
Dry mouth affects 30 percent of patients older than 65 and 40 percent of patients over the age of 80. The ADA notes that this is often due to side effects from medications, particularly if the patient is taking four or more drugs. However, it can also be associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.
Dry mouth can also cause other problems. It can lead to mucositis, characterized by pain and inflammation of the lining that covers the mouth. It can increase the risk of cavities. And it can contribute to cracked lips and fissures on the tongue. Dry mouth can be treated by sipping water throughout the day and avoiding beverages high in sugar or caffeine. Over-the-counter saliva substitutes and oral rinses may help as well.
Root decay is more common in older adults because of gum recession that can expose root surfaces and leave them vulnerable. Dry mouth also contributes to root decay. Roughly half of people aged 75 and older have issues with cavities in the roots of at least one tooth, according to the ADA.
The ADA recommends good oral hygiene, including the use of oscillating toothbrushes and topical fluorides (such as daily mouth rinses) as a means of prevention. Dental experts also recommend avoiding sugary foods and brushing immediately after eating soft, starchy foods — such as bread, potatoes and pasta — which are more likely to stick to teeth.
Gum disease often increases with age as well, though research published in the Journal of the American Dental Association found that severe periodontitis is not a natural consequence of aging. Rather, it has a great deal to do with how well you care for your teeth and gums every day.
Gum disease begins with gingivitis, when plaque and tartar remain on the teeth and gums too long. This causes red, swollen gums that may bleed. If left untreated, over time it can turn into periodontitis, a more severe form of gum disease that occurs when the gums recede and pockets form around the tooth that can become infected.
People with diabetes are at higher risk of developing gum disease, which is linked to higher blood glucose levels. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, gum disease is also exacerbated by conditions such as AIDS and its treatments, along with some cancer treatments. Smoking is a significant factor contributing to gum disease, so this provides yet one more reason to quit!
When performing dental work on older adults, dentists must bear in mind that aging affects the nervous system, which is targeted by local and general anesthetics. Patients should ask their dentist whether a reduced dosage of anesthetics is being used and also remember that it may take longer to recover from the effects of the medication.