Like many people, you might be caring for an elderly parent or family member. That care should include a focus on their teeth and gums — a healthy mouth is vitally important to their overall health, nutrition and well-being. Because of the aging process, this can be challenging.
Here are 4 areas where you should focus your attention to assure the senior adult in your life has the healthiest mouth possible.
Make adjustments for hygiene. As we grow older, arthritis and similar conditions make brushing and flossing difficult to perform. You can help your senior adult keep up these vital tasks by switching to a powered toothbrush or refitting their brush with a bike handle or tennis ball to make gripping easier. Pre-loaded floss holders or water irrigators are effective alternatives to manual flossing if it becomes too difficult.
Have dentures or other appliances checked regularly. Many older people wear full or partial dentures. Due to the nature of these appliances, the risk of bone loss over time is greater, which can eventually affect their fit. Their dentist should check them regularly and reline or repair them if possible. Eventually, they may need a new appliance to match any changing contours in the mouth.
Be aware of age-related dental issues. Age-related conditions of both the mouth and the body (like osteoporosis, which can affect bone density) can impact dental health. For example, an older person can develop lower saliva flow, often due to medications they’re taking. This, as well as gastric reflux common in older people, increases acidity and a higher risk of tooth decay. Past dental work like fillings, crowns or bridges may also make hygiene and additional treatment more difficult.
Keep up regular dental visits. In light of all this, it’s crucial to keep up with regular dental visits for continuing teeth and gum health. Besides cleanings, these visits are also important for monitoring signs of tooth decay, periodontal (gum) disease and oral cancer. It’s also a good opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of their hygiene efforts and suggest adjustments.
If you would like more information on dental care for older adults, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Aging & Dental Health.”
Here’s a sobering statistic: you have a 50/50 chance over your lifetime for developing periodontal (gum) disease. And it’s much more serious than irritated gums: if not treated aggressively you could experience bone loss, which can not only lead to tooth loss but actually increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Initially, you may not notice any symptoms unless you know what to look for: mainly red and puffy gums that frequently bleed during brushing and flossing. As the infection advances into the underlying support structures that hold teeth in place you may also notice receding gums (moving away from your teeth causing them to look longer), pus around the gums or lingering bad breath or taste. And one or more loose teeth are a definite sign the supporting structures have weakened severely.
So, how does gum disease happen? It starts with bacteria. Your mouth contains millions of these and other microorganisms, most of which are friendly and even beneficial. Unfortunately, a fraction of them can infect and harm tissues like the gums and underlying bone. Your mouth’s defenses can normally handle them if their numbers remain low. But a bacterial population explosion can quickly overwhelm those defenses.
Bacteria are like any other life form: they need a secure environment and food. Disease-causing bacteria establish the former by utilizing proteins and other components of saliva to form a sticky biofilm on teeth known as plaque. Within the safe haven of dental plaque bacteria quickly multiply and form a complex and concentrated ecosystem feeding on remnant food particles, especially sugar and other carbohydrates.
The key to gum disease prevention (as well as treatment) is to deprive bacteria of their home and food source by removing plaque and its more hardened form calculus (tartar). You can manage plaque buildup by brushing and flossing daily, seeing your dentist regularly for cleanings to remove any remaining hard-to-reach plaque and calculus, and eating a nutritious diet with fewer sweets or other carbohydrate-rich snacks.
You can further lower your disease risk by avoiding smoking and other tobacco products and moderating your consumption of alcohol. And be sure to see your dentist as soon as possible if you notice any signs of infection with your gums. Taking these steps can help you avoid gum disease’s destructiveness and help preserve a healthy and attractive smile.