As we age, we enter our lives’ second period of heightened cavity risks—the first, of source, having taken place during our childhood. During our senior years, our mouths dry, our teeth decay, and our nutritional intake worsen. The consequence is a mouth prone to cavities, gingivitis, and other periodontal diseases.
The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 1 in 5 older adults have untreated tooth decay. Similarly, physicians overwhelmingly diagnose oral and pharyngeal cancers among those aged 60 and older. It’s no wonder, then, that 53 percent of American seniors have moderate or severe periodontal disease.
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the risk of oral disease as a senior or older adult. It starts, perhaps unsurprisingly, by practicing routine oral hygiene habits. In this article, we’ll go over what you can do to maintain your healthy smile in your senior years, and prevent the onset of oral diseases and tooth decay.
Top Oral Health Issues in Seniors
We’ve listed the most prominent oral and dental health issues in seniors and American adults over the age of 60, as well as their respective causes.
Periodontal diseases (“gum disease”) are infections of the tissues supporting the teeth. The onset of gum disease is brought about due to plaque and food remnants left in the mouth. Seniors’ risk of developing gum disease is increased by the use of cigarettes or cigars, dirty dentures, and a poor diet.
Nearly 20 percent of American adults over the age of 65 have lost all their teeth. The primary cause of tooth loss in adults is gum disease, which is brought about by a variety of factors listed above.
Stomatitis refers to the inflammation of the mouth and lips that often occurs due to poor dental hygiene and wrongly-fitted dentures. Dentures that fit poorly in one’s mouth make harmful bacteria difficult to remove and can result in a buildup of invasive bacterial cultures. Often, many seniors with stomatitis develop infections from Candida fungi.
Many seniors with poor dental hygiene habits expose the roots of their teeth due to the overconsumption of acidic foods and beverages. Consequently, gum tissues recede and the roots of their teeth become exposed without any protective enamel covering. Unlike the crown, teeth roots are highly vulnerable to bacterial infections and structural decay.
When seniors lose a tooth and do not replace the tooth with a denture, the remaining teeth in the mouth shift to occupy the vacant space. Over time, the individual’s jawbone dislocates and can cause severe pain in the jaw and mandible region if left untreated.
Chronic Dry Mouth
The older we get, the less we salivate. Unfortunately, a lack of saliva production leads to a host of oral health problems because it means the mouth can no longer naturally flush out contaminants and food particulates. Cancer treatments such as radiation therapy to the neck and larynx region is a common culprit behind the chronic dry mouth condition.
Aging teeth no longer have the same dentin configuration that they once did during one’s youth. Dentin is a structural tissue that supports the enamel around the tooth. After decades of consuming enamel-eroding food and drinks, the dentin profile in our teeth erodes which causes a permanent yellow-black stain on the surface of one’s teeth.
Preventing Oral Diseases In Your Senior Years
Wearing dentures was once a foregone conclusion, but today many seniors still have at least some of their natural teeth. Their secret? A thorough and consistent personal dental hygiene regimen, which includes regular flossing, brushing, check-ups, and mouthwash rinsing. We’ve listed the top dental hygiene tips for seniors below.
Adopt a Gentler Brushing Style
As a senior, your teeth aren’t as strong as they used to be. Your teeth have undergone decades of general wear and tear. Therefore, they need to be treated with a gentle touch. Be careful not to overbrush, and instead use a non-abrasive toothpaste that gently scrubs the surface of your teeth without digging into the all-important enamel.
Wash Your Dentures
If you wear dentures, you must take time out of your day to thoroughly wash them. Removable dentures should be cleaned daily in the evenings after you have eaten your last meal. Otherwise, the leftover bacteria from your food may linger in your mouth and contaminate your gums if left overnight which can increase the risk of gum disease.
Most removable dentures are sold with a cleaning solution that should be applied every day. However, if your dentures did not include a cleaning agent, you can let your dentures soak every night in cold water.
Drink Plenty of Water
It should go without saying (though it doesn’t) that adequate hydration is the best defense against chronic dry mouth. Since a dry mouth is one of the leading causes of gum disease and periodontal illnesses, seniors must ramp up their water intake as they get older.
Generally, two to four liters of water per day is recommended depending on one’s gender, body size, and geographical location. Most doctors recommend men to consume about 3.7 liters of water per day to stave off the negative effects of dehydration. Hydration is especially important during one’s senior years because it ensures:
- The proper elimination of waste via urination and perspiration
- The joints are well-lubricated, including those of the jaw and mouth
- That sensitive tissues are shielded with membranes and lubricants
- That your internal body temperature is well-regulated
Even if we’ve lost some of our teeth, we must maintain a daily flossing routine. Cleaning the debris and gunk from between your teeth is the best safeguard against gum diseases such as gingivitis.
If you notice blood or redness on your dental floss after using it, you should consult with your dentist immediately as this is an early symptom of periodontal disease.
Cut The Soda
One should resist the temptation to indulge in sugary soft drinks and sodas like they would with tobacco and alcohol. Although the odd soda is fine on occasion, most soft drinks are very acidic and can rot your teeth down to the enamel. Similarly, consumption of highly acidic foods such as limes, lemons, and vinegar should also be moderated.
Check-In With Your Dentist
Many seniors start to neglect their oral hygiene and dental health as they get older. Ultimately, the neglect of one’s dental hygiene is the primary culprit behind periodontal diseases in old age. To prevent the onset of gum disease and tooth loss, ensure that you visit your dentist for regular check-ups at least once annually.
Are Your Meds Messing With Your Mouth?
The American Dental Association notes that hundreds of prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause cavities in older adults by chronically drying the mouth. If you find that your new medication for high blood pressure, allergies, asthma, anxiety, or depression are making your mouth feel uncomfortable, consult with your doctor immediately.
Mind Your Mouth
A mounting body of evidence suggests that oral health is intricately connected to one’s overall health. Recent studies have found that there exists a link between inflammation of the gums and various diseases such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and lung disease.
Experts believe that bacteria from the mouth enter the bloodstream via oral infections, which then spread to other regions of the body and cause chronic inflammation.
There’s no denying that taking good care of your oral health should be a top priority during your senior years. Practicing responsible dental hygiene, washing your dentures, and regularly visiting your dentist for a check-up can have massive downstream benefits for your overall health and longevity—it all starts with minding your mouth.