You may not think about it from day to day, but good oral hygiene affects so much of life, from our smile to the length of our lives.
Seniors especially face challenges with dental care and should be intentional about maintaining the health of their teeth and gums.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of American adults age 65 or older are dealing with gum disease, and the same percentage of adults 60 or older have lost all of their natural teeth. In Tennessee, the percentage of complete tooth loss for those 65 and up is 31.5 percent, with more than half of the senior population having lost at least six teeth.
As we age, dental care can become more challenging. However, tooth loss is not a foregone conclusion. The good news is that several simple steps can help seniors reduce the risks of cavities, periodontal (gum) disease and oral cancers.
Key elements to good oral health include dental hygiene, regular dental visits, nutrition and medication management.
Brushing and flossing regularly is vital to oral health at any age. Both the CDC and the American Dental Association recommend using fluoride toothpaste to combat plaque most effectively and using a soft-bristled toothbrush for flexibility and comfort.
Seniors can keep up good dental hygiene even with arthritis or other conditions that make handling a toothbrush or floss tricky. Electric toothbrushes are one tool (even a cheap model is effective), and flossing sticks can help avoid the intricate fingerwork needed with traditional floss.
Regular Dental Visits
The general recommendation is to visit a dentist every six months, though both the CDC and ADA emphasize that at least once a year is vital to maintain dental health.
The biggest challenge here may be the cost of dental visits. Medicare does not cover them, though some supplement plans offer minimal assistance.
Resources for Paying for Dental Visits
However, it is cheaper to deal with cavities and gum disease early.
Even if your mouth doesn’t hurt, routine checks are important. According to the CDC, periodontal disease affects more than 70 percent of seniors age 65 and older. And for many, the disease doesn’t begin to cause pain until it has progressed. If left untreated, it can cause tooth loss and even bone loss.
Dental offices have the tools to clean deeper than the daily home cleaning regimen, and dentists can offer individualized advice.
Nutrition and Medication Concerns
Maybe you haven’t thought about nutrition as an important step in caring for your teeth, but it is. What you put in your mouth directly impacts how bacteria grows.
The obvious correlation is with sugar. Eating sugary foods and drinks like soda or sweetened coffee can contribute to tooth decay, and even hidden sugars in processed foods can be a concern.
Good nutrition – eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains – is just as vital for dental health as it is for general health. Remember: It’s not only your teeth you need to take care of but your gums and the interior of your mouth as well.
Sometimes seniors with sensitive teeth or dentures gravitate toward softer foods rather than biting into big pieces of food, but there are ways around that dilemma. Hard fruits and vegetables, like apples or carrots, can be cut into smaller, easier-to-chew pieces.
Besides concerns over food, drinking alcohol and smoking are strongly linked to gum disease and oral cancers.
According to the ADA, dry mouth is a common side effect of more than 500 medications. It is a problem because saliva is your body’s natural way of keeping your mouth clean and rebuilding tooth enamel.
For these reasons, it is important to talk to your dentist about your medications and vitamins, so he or she can recommend ways to overcome the dryness. Simple ways to combat dry mouth include drinking water frequently, using mouthwashes specifically made for dry mouth, chewing sugarless gum and staying away from substances that further dry out the mouth (like coffee, alcohol and citrus).
You can also talk to your physician to see if you can change medications or lower the dosage (do not change your dosage without consulting your doctor first).
When it comes down to it, oral health is not just about helping you maintain your pearly whites. It is also about keeping you healthy, and that is something to smile about.