Age itself is not a cause of dental problems in seniors, but other problems common in the second half of life can contribute to dental issues. Here are some of the concerns you may face and how to take care of them. Your dentist is your best resource on dealing with these problems, so be sure to discuss any issues you have or may develop with him or her.
One of the most common complaints dentists hear from their aging patients is dry mouth, which is exactly what it sounds like. Although dry mouth is not a normal part of getting older, it is a side effect of many medications prescribed for the diseases and disorders that often afflict older people. Medications prescribed for allergies, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, pain, asthma, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s can all contribute to dry mouth. In fact, there are over 500 medicines that list dry mouth as a side effect.
The diminishing saliva is not only uncomfortable, it can also lead to cavities. So even though you may be caring for your teeth regularly, you may find that you are getting cavities like you did as a child. So what can be done? Here are some often prescribed steps you can take to alleviate dry mouth.
- Use moisturizing sprays or mouthwashes. These are sold over the counter and are usually found on the toothpaste aisle.
- Ask your physician if your medication can be changed to one that does not have that side effect.
- Drink, drink, drink! Carry a bottle with you and keep your mouth lubricated.
- Sugar-free candy or gum can help stimulate saliva production. Choose products made with xylitol if possible, as this sweetener has been shown to protect teeth.
- Avoid drinking coffee, carbonated drinks, alcohol, and acidic fruit juices. These all irritate dry mouths. Also stay away from spices that may cause tenderness, such as cinnamon.
Also called gum disease, this is a prevalent problem for older adults. The reason it is so common is because it is often painless until the advanced stages. Gum disease is caused by bacteria in plaque which causes irritation, swelling, and bleeding gums. If left untreated, it can eventually cause the gums to pull away from the teeth, damage the gums, bone and ligaments that support the teeth, and lead to tooth loss. Fortunately, gum disease can be prevented or treated with regular, professional care.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 35,000 cases of tongue, mouth, and throat cancer are diagnosed every year. At your routine dental visits, your dentist will check for mouth cancers. This is very important for two reasons. First, the average age of people diagnosed with oral cancer is 62. Second, you may not be aware of symptoms in the early stages when the disease is most easily treated.
Two Special Considerations
Many seniors have undergone procedures to replace joints or may have heart conditions. Your dentist needs to be made aware of this and will probably have you take an antibiotic prior to your dental appointment, because some of these conditions have a high risk of infection. The American Dental Association works in conjunction with the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons to combat these complications. Be sure your dentist knows about your medical history.
Since Medicare does not pay for dental care, some seniors do not visit their dentist regularly, choosing to wait until there is pain before they make an appointment. But preventive dentistry is much more affordable than treating problems that only become worse with inattention. There are organizations like AARP and AMAC that offer discounted dental plans for members. You can also search for a discounted plan on the National Association of Dental Plans website.
Some Final Thoughts
Tasks that once seemed simple may be very difficult for aging patients to perform. For instance, brushing and flossing may be painful for someone with arthritis. Yet keeping their mouths clean is very important especially as mouth bacteria can be inhaled and result in pneumonia.
It is impossible to overstress the importance of twice a year checkups for senior citizens. Your dentist can offer advice on alternative approaches on brushing, flossing, and caring for your teeth if those tasks have become challenging.
Elderly people who are not eating well or who quit eating altogether may be having trouble with their dentures. Ill-fitting dentures can cause great discomfort, but a trip to see a dentist can help mitigate those kinds of problems.
Your dentist is your partner in good oral health. Be sure you are availing yourself of dental services designed to give you good quality of life from early childhood into old age.