Dental Hygiene After 55: A Guide for Older Adults
It’s no secret that good oral hygiene is important. But, for many adults over 55, practicing good oral care habits isn’t as easy as it once was. For some, arthritis and other conditions make it harder to brush and floss the way you should. For others, changes in finances or lack of adequate dental insurance might be a barrier to regular cleanings. Or, maybe you’re disabled and relying on a family member or caretaker to assist you in these areas when they can.
There are some very real challenges to practicing good oral hygiene as you age. But often, people use these reasons as an excuse to let their oral hygiene fall to the wayside, which can frequently lead to some potentially serious health problems — not just oral health problems, but also ones in other areas of the body. Good oral hygiene preserves your natural teeth longer and helps you lower your risk factors for other diseases. That’s right. Good oral health is directly linked to good health elsewhere in your body.
There is a direct link between oral health and heart disease. The presence of gum disease can increase an individual’s risk for heart disease. People with periodontal disease have increased chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Why? When gum disease, gingivitis or periodontal disease is present and undiagnosed, that means the body is playing host to bad bacteria. These bad oral bacteria, when left untreated, can enter the bloodstream and make their way to your heart and surrounding areas, increasing the risk of heart disease. In addition to increasing the risk of heart disease, the presence of untreated gum disease can also lead to several other conditions, including pneumonia, diabetes, darkened teeth, dry mouth and root decay. It also increases the risk of stroke.
Periodontal disease has also been linked with risk factors for chronic degenerative diseases like ulcerative colitis and lupus.
But the good news is that dental professionals and their patients are recognizing how important it is for adults of all ages, but especially ones over 55, to pay close attention to their oral hygiene habits. Along with increasing awareness of senior dental health care problems, there has been increasing awareness about how seniors can care for their teeth and gums and prevent some common issues.
Oral Health Statistics for Older Adults
The results of increased awareness of oral hygiene issues in older adults are encouraging. In the last 40 years, the percentage of adults in Canada with no natural teeth has dropped from 23.6 percent to 6.4 percent. That means more seniors than ever are keeping at least some of their teeth. This is likely due to a variety of factors, including the fact that 75 percent of Canadians visit the dentist annually.
The truth is that when it comes to older adults, there is so much more to oral hygiene than just preventing dentures. In fact, as you age, maintaining your natural teeth can become a huge challenge. Sadly, for many Canadians, finances are a barrier to receiving regular dental checkups. In Canada, only Alberta and the Yukon Territory provide dental coverage for adults over 65. That means that roughly one in 10 seniors in Canada avoids dental treatment, and one in six admits they do so because of the high costs. But high costs aren’t the only reason older adults aren’t getting the preventive care that they need.
Certain health conditions can also become barriers to maintaining good oral hygiene. Conditions such as arthritis can make it difficult for adults to brush or floss on their own adequately, and arthritis itself can be connected to periodontal disease. If they are suffering from dementia or another condition that leads to forgetfulness, they may also not be as diligent in remembering to brush, floss or care for their mouth. Or, sometimes if an individual is taking a medicine that creates dry mouth, they could find themselves at increased risk for dental issues.
One other issue older adults run into is the increased rate of disability that comes with age, as adults become more reliant on others for their daily oral care and access to a dentist. If you are a caretaker to an older adult, we cannot stress enough how important it is to incorporate regular dental checkups and daily oral hygiene habits into the routine for your loved one — especially if your loved one is in a nursing home or senior care facility of some kind. It is important to be an advocate for your loved one and make sure their daily routine includes oral care.
Common Dental Problems for Older Adults
While several challenges can pop up as you age, it’s important not to let these challenges discourage you. Maintaining good oral hygiene can be harder as you get older, but making the extra effort to understand your mouth and the care it needs is important in preventing several uncomfortable — and potentially painful — conditions.
Saliva keeps the mouth wet. The body uses this moisture to prevent decay and infection. When the body stops producing enough saliva — a condition known as dry mouth — the teeth and gums become more susceptible to issues. Dry mouth can be a common side effect of many medications, as well as cancer treatments — both of which are common in older adults. However, if this is an issue, dry mouth can be addressed by working with your doctor to find a medication that does not have this side effect.
Attrition is a term used to describe the common wear and tear the chewing surfaces of your teeth accumulate over time. After decades of chewing and grinding your teeth, the enamel can wear down. Not only can this increase your risk of cavities, but it can be a painful condition to repair if left unchecked. However, regular dental checkups will help your dentist detect problems early on. They can monitor your condition, as well as work with you to identify the source of the problem to keep it under control. For example, a dental professional may recommend wearing a mouthguard at night to cut down on the wear and tear from grinding your teeth, or suggest composites.
Did you know the chance of having severe enough tooth damage to require a root canal or other similar procedure triples after the age of 65? Not only that, but the rate of tooth decay in older adults has, for the first time, surpassed the rate of tooth decay in school-aged children. Root decay is especially a problem in older adults because it is often linked to gum disease. Gum disease causes your gums to recede, which exposes the roots of your teeth and leaves them vulnerable to rapid decay.
The conditions dentists categorize as oral disease are varied. It can include something as simple as thrush, which is just a fungal infection in the mouth, or something as serious as oral cancer. In cases like thrush, dental professionals can recommend an oral anti-thrush medication. However, for more serious oral diseases, the treatment isn’t nearly as quick or painless. Individuals over the age of 60 are at the highest risk of oral cancer. Oral cancers include cancer of the lips, tongue, cheeks, the floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses and throat. Factors that increase oral cancer risk include smoking or use of other tobacco products, high consumption of alcohol, HPV, gender, a diet low in fruits and vegetables and even sun exposure. Seeing a dental professional regularly is the best way to ensure early detection and successful treatment of oral cancer.
Dental Care Tips for Seniors
It sounds overwhelming to think about the possible issues that can stem from poor oral hygiene later in life, but it doesn’t have to be. The good news is there are several simple steps older adults and their caretakers can take to protect their teeth and gums as they age.
Brush and Floss Regularly
It may seem obvious, but the best thing you can do to avoid common dental problems is to brush and floss. We recommend brushing at least twice a day — in the morning and evening as a general rule — and flossing with either dental floss or another inter-dental cleaner. Make sure to brush for at least two minutes to ensure a thorough cleaning of all of your teeth. An electric toothbrush can be a great option, but if you prefer to stick with a manual toothbrush, make sure to brush with a brush that has soft bristles.
Fluoride isn’t just necessary for young children — it can also be part of good oral hygiene for older adults. Apply fluoride to your teeth by using a fluoride toothpaste during your daily oral care routine. Making sure you regularly drink tap water can also help, because it usually has fluoride in it.
Staying away from all tobacco products will decrease your risk of oral cancer and other dental issues. As we mentioned earlier, tobacco use — whether smoked or chewed — puts you at increased risk for oral and throat cancer. It can also increase the likelihood that you will develop gum disease and tooth decay, and it could potentially lead to you losing teeth as well. Chewing tobacco is particularly a catalyst for tooth decay because of the sugars it introduces into your mouth.
Increase Oral Hydration
If you’re struggling with dry mouth as a side effect of one of your regular medications, talk with your doctor. If it’s possible to switch to another medicine that doesn’t cause that side effect, do it. If you need to stay on the medication causing the issues, make sure you drink plenty of water, chew sugarless gum and avoid alcohol, because it can increase your body’s chances of dehydration.
Use an Antibacterial Mouthwash
In conjunction with regular brushing and flossing practices, using an antibacterial mouthwash can help reduce plaque buildup in your mouth.
Schedule Regular Dental Exams
You’d be surprised at how many people skip this last, but oh-so-important, step. On average, adults should visit their dentist every six months for a cleaning and exam, maybe even more frequently if you have an ongoing dental issue. Routine care can help prevent some problems, as well as give your dentist the opportunity to address any existing problems before they have a chance to get worse.
Listen to Your Dentist
Your dentist is there to help take care of your mouth. They strive to prevent future problems, as well as address existing problems in a way that keeps issues from getting worse, and maybe even get rid of issues altogether. It’s important to communicate with your dentist and follow their instructions. Older adults especially need to work with their dentist to determine care for issues as they arise, as well as develop a preventive plan that helps keep their oral health in check. For example, a patient at high risk for periodontal disease should ask their dentist for guidance regarding special toothpaste, gel and even antibacterial mouthwash that can help prevent a decline in oral health.
Let Alpen Dental Help You Care for Your Mouth
Oral health for seniors is important. Whether you are enjoying good oral health or you are in need of dental healthcare, visiting a dental professional is one of the most proactive steps you can take to care for your teeth and gums. At Alpen Dental, we operate on the belief that patients of any age deserve care and attention. From routine checkups to more involved dental procedures, Alpen Dental works to care for our patients every step of the way.
Our goal is to teach our patients how to take an active role in their dental care by teaching them about the importance of good oral health and disease prevention. By educating our patients, we believe they will be better equipped to take charge of their oral hygiene and be inspired to protect their teeth and gums for years to come.
Alpen Dental offers a range of dental services for children and adults of all ages, including implants, tooth extraction, dental cleanings, whitening, crowns, bridges and dentures. Our offices in Blackfalds and Rimbey are accepting new patients, and we would love to help you take charge of your oral health. To learn more, or to schedule an appointment, contact our Blackfalds or Rimbey offices today.