Overview of Dental Care Basics for Seniors

The importance of a senior maintaining good oral and dental health absolutely cannot be understated. Issues with a senior’s teeth and gums can be extremely painful and even debilitating. Oral and dental issues can affect not only your ability to eat but your capacity to communicate, your appearance, and much, much more. In this article, we provide an essential overview of dental care basics for seniors.

Dental Issues That Commonly Impact Seniors

There is a variety of dental issues that commonly impact seniors. We take a look at each of these issues and how they can affect a senior’s well-being.

Tooth Decay

According to a National Center for Health Statistics report, approximately one in five seniors in the United States has untreated tooth decay. This occurs partly because a significant number of seniors have arthritis or other medical conditions that reduce the dexterity in their hands. Thus, many seniors are not able to brush or floss properly. Poor oral hygiene habits can also lead to an accumulation of tartar and plaque. This can eventually result in tooth decay.

Receding Gums

Some seniors find their gums gradually shrinking or receding away from their teeth. Ultimately, roots become exposed. Teeth can become sensitive to touch as well as hot and cold extremes. Exposed roots are even more prone to decay than the top part of the tooth. Roots have no protective enamel.

Receding gums can be a result of several underlying causes. These include genetics, brushing too hard, or grinding your teeth. Without treatment, your risk of gum disease and tooth loss increases significantly. A deep cleaning may take care of the problem. In extreme cases, a gum graft may be required.

Dry Mouth

Many people do not realize that age frequently results in a drop in saliva production. This decrease allows acids and sugars to build up in a person’s mouth. As a consequence, seniors are more prone to cavities. A dry mouth can result in a swollen tongue as well as cracked lips. These conditions can make speaking and swallowing challenging or difficult.

A dry mouth is a common side effect of hundreds of different medications. This includes meds for asthma, depression, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, nausea, urinary incontinence, and Parkinson’s disease. Dry mouth can also result from medical conditions that include anemia, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease.

To alleviate dry mouth, drink water frequently, use a humidifier to add moisture to the air, and stay away from soft drinks, coffee, and alcohol. Munching on sugar-free chewing gum can also be helpful. Chewing stimulates saliva production.

Darkened Teeth

As people age, the enamel on teeth thins. When this occurs, it allows the underlying dentin to show through. Dentin is a grayish-yellow bony tissue. This process can give the teeth a darker appearance. Moreover, many years of smoking, chewing tobacco, as well as drinking tea, coffee, or colas can stain the teeth. Chemotherapy treatments and high blood pressure medications can also add to the problem. If you’re concerned, ask your dentist about whitening treatments, tooth bonding, or porcelain veneers.

Gum Disease

Gum disease is also known as periodontal disease or periodontitis. Generally speaking, gum disease is the result of a buildup of plaque.

Initially, the gums become red and swollen and bleed easily. This condition is called gingivitis. If this is left untreated, pockets form between the gums and the teeth, and infection sets in as plaque begin to grow below the gum line. Eventually, the bone and connective tissues supporting the teeth can be destroyed. This ultimately can cause teeth to fall out.

Gum disease is the number one cause of tooth loss in adults. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 70 percent of American seniors have periodontitis.

Gum disease can be aggravated by smoking, poor diet, and dentures that don’t fit properly. Some medical conditions can worsen gum disease. These include diabetes, anemia, heart disease, and cancer.

The best way to prevent gum disease is to maintain a healthy diet. You should also brush with fluoride toothpaste twice daily, floss daily, and get regular professional cleanings.

Oral Cancer

Finally, oral cancer can affect teeth, gums, lips, cheeks, or tongue. Common symptoms include white or red bumps or patches, sores that bleed easily and don’t go away after a couple of weeks, pain, hoarseness, and difficulty moving the tongue or jaw.

According to the American Cancer Society, the average age of people diagnosed with oral cancer is 62. Men are more than twice as likely as women to develop oral cancer. Smoking, heavy drinking, and a family history of cancer all increase the risk of this type of cancer. If you are diagnosed with the condition, you may require surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.

To help prevent oral cancer, see your dentist regularly. Make sure you ask him or her to investigate any discolored areas or persistent sores in and around your mouth.

What Happens When a Senior Is Missing Teeth

Dental care for seniors is vital. Missing teeth can trigger a series of problems for a senior. The remaining teeth often drift into the available space, which results in a severely misaligned bite. The uneven chewing pressure can cause the teeth you have left to fracture more easily and wear down more rapidly. It can also strain what is known as your temporomandibular joint. When this happens, it can result in headaches and jaw pain.

In addition, your jawbone can deteriorate. This occurs because it needs constant pressure to rebuild itself and stay healthy. The roots of a tooth serve to nourish and stimulate the jawbone. This helps maintain the bone mass and the jaw’s natural shape. However, the jawbone resorbs or shrinks and thins when roots are missing.

Unfortunately, the resulting bone loss can change the structure of your face. Your mouth may collapse inward. Your chin and jowls may become pointed as the facial muscles weaken and detach. The corners of your mouth may permanently sag. This can be the case even when you smile.

Significantly, your ability to speak clearly can also be affected by missing teeth. This particularly is the case when front teeth are missing.

Missing teeth can also impact a senior’s ability to eat. You may find it difficult to bite or chew into certain types of foods. This might result in you avoiding those foods. This can result in the development of nutritional deficiencies.

Keep in mind that chewing facilitates the digestive process. Chewing tells the stomach to produce acid. Chewing tells the pancreas to produce enzymes. If you are unable to chew properly, this process is impaired. In addition, your salivary glands might not activate. This can make it difficult to swallow.

Previously, we mentioned the need for a senior to have regular dental appointments. Ideally, a senior should have dental checkups at least twice a year.