Good dental health is as important for elderly people as it is for youngsters. Maintaining good oral hygiene
is essential because the health of the mouth affects the overall health of the body; the mouth is a window to the rest of the body. The branch of dentistry which deals with the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of dental problems in the aged people is known as Gerodontology.
There is one common misconception that losing teeth is inevitable during the old age, but this is not true. If cared for properly, our teeth can stay for a lifetime. As our mouth changes with the growing age, the nerves in our teeth become small in size, making our teeth less sensitive to tooth cavities and other dental problems. Therefore, regular dental examinations are important to diagnose dental problems on time. In India, most dental insurances cover only those dental treatments required due to an accident, but not for routine preventive care.
Why is Oral hygiene and Preventive care in Seniors important?Many elder people ignore dental problems because they canít afford the expensive dental treatments and also lack of transport facility to visit a dental clinic. More than 30% of older adults have untreated tooth cavities. Dental problems can lead to other chronic medical diseases such as heart disease and stroke, lung infections and oral cancer. Extensive edentulism or loss of teeth affects the choice of food and causes weight loss and difficulty in communication. Dental problems can also affect digestion of food. Digestion begins with the physical and chemical processes in the mouth. Dental problems can lead to irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders.
What are the Dental Problems in the Elderly?The dental problems usually encountered by older adults are as follows:
- Tooth decay - As the age increases, the gums tend to recede. The roots of the teeth get exposed and become susceptible to cariogenic bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans, Lactobacillus, and Actinomyces. An early visit to the dentist can treat dental caries and gum disease on time. If an elder person is not comfortable with his/her dentist, then choose a dentist who is trained to treat elderly patients.
- Difficulty while brushing and flossing - Elderly people may suffer from arthritis of the joints of the hand, making brushing and flossing a difficult task. The problem may be solved by using an electric toothbrush or flossing aids available in the local pharmacy stores.
- Dry Mouth is a common risk factor for tooth decay. Older adults usually produce less saliva. Saliva keeps our mouth moist and helps us to chew, taste and swallow the food. It also removes the food debris and bacteria present in the mouth. Insufficient saliva production results in dry mouth or xerostomia, which promotes dental caries and gum disease. Some common causes of dry mouth are cancer therapy (radiation/chemotherapy), intake of certain medications, smoking and Sjorgrenís syndrome. Other risk factors for tooth decay in older adults include:
- Past history of caries
- Low socioeconomic status
- Poor oral hygiene
- Consumption of non-fluoridated water
- Lack of interest to visit the dental clinic
- Gum disease - Gum disease is also known as the periodontal disease; it is a dental condition that damages the supporting structures of the tooth such as the soft tissues and the bone. In its mildest form, it can cause inflamed or bleeding gums, while in its severe form, it leads to bone loss, gum recession and even tooth loss. To prevent gum disease, it is essential to remove plaque through brushing, flossing and by regular dental check-ups.
- Poorly fitting dentures - Prolonged usage of poorly fitted dentures can cause many problems like poor nutrition, mouth sores, blisters, denture stomatitis and angular cheilitis. Dentures need to be cleaned, checked and re-fitted regularly.
- Dental Attrition - Dental attrition is a kind of tooth wear due to tooth-to-tooth contact. It is a normal part of aging and causes wearing away of the enamel thus increasing the risk of tooth sensitivity and tooth decay.
Oral Care Tips for Older Adults
- Brush your teeth twice a day with a soft bristles toothbrush. You can also use an electric toothbrush.
- Change your toothbrush every 3 months or sooner if its bristles are worn out.
- Use dental floss to remove dental plaque and food stuck in-between your teeth.
- Use a fluoride-containing mouth wash
- Donít use mouthwash immediately after brushing as it can wash away the fluoride present in your toothpaste.
- Eat a nutritious diet of vegetables and fresh fruits containing vitamins and minerals to boost immunity and prevent dental problems. Brush your teeth after eating sweets.
- If you are wearing full or partial dentures, then clean them regularly. Take your dentures out of the mouth for at-least four hours daily. The best time to remove them is at night.
- Avoid sodas, sugary drinks and limit snacks in-between meals.
- Quit smoking. Smoking can cause gum disease, staining of teeth, tooth decay, tooth loss and oral cancer.
- Limit alcohol intake. Excessive drinking is a risk factor for throat and oral cancers.
- Make sure that you get dental treatment done before cancer therapy as chemotherapy and radiation can damage the oral tissues and the bone.
- Visit your dentist regularly for a complete dental check-up.
- Talk to a dentist or dental hygienist who specializes in helping elderly to maintain their oral health.