Just because you’re aging doesn’t mean dental problems and dentures are inevitable. A healthy adult who practices good oral hygiene can keep their smile bright and healthy throughout their entire life. In fact, the number of older adults who don’t have their own teeth has dropped significantly, and the average senior still has most of their own teeth.
More and more adults are keeping their own teeth longer, but what many older adults don’t realize is that there can be a connection between oral health and aging. This is why good oral hygiene has never been more important.
There is a strong connection between the conditions inside of your mouth and the overall health in your body. In other words, if your mouth is healthy, then you’re likely more healthy overall. And, besides reducing the risk of certain serious health conditions, a healthy mouth and a healthy smile never go out of style! Whether you’re 10 or 100, there’s no better feeling than clean, healthy teeth and gums.
How Aging Affects Your Mouth and Teeth
Everyone knows about cavities and yellowing teeth. But there’s so much more to oral health than tooth decay and a white smile. So how exactly are dental health and aging related to each other, and what happens to teeth as we age?
1. Wear and Tear
All that biting, chewing and grinding your teeth have been doing for the past several decades is bound to cause some wear and tear, even in the healthiest of mouths. Your enamel may have thinned over the years, and your teeth may be more susceptible to chipping or breaking. Aging teeth and gums may also become more sensitive to extreme temperatures, making it more difficult to enjoy your favorite ice cream or that steaming cup of coffee in the morning.
2. Gum Disease
Everyone has some bacteria in their mouths. In moderation, it’s no big deal. But when bacteria — more commonly referred to as “plaque” — builds up inside of your mouth it can turn into an oral infection and, eventually, gum disease. In the early stages of gum disease, you might notice that your gums are irritated, or they bleed when you brush. But, over time, untreated gum disease can spread beyond your mouth and end up affecting other parts of the body. So why is gum disease in the elderly especially a concern? It’s primarily a concern because gum disease can put adults at a higher risk for heart disease or stroke. It can also make existing diabetes worse.
3. Dry Mouth
Saliva — or spit — exists in our mouths to help break down food as we chew, as well as wash away the unwanted buildup of bacteria in the mouth. This prevents tooth decay and gum disease. If your mouth isn’t producing enough saliva, then bacteria is going to build up inside of the mouth.
Unfortunately, dry mouth, which is a lack of saliva inside of the mouth, is a common side effect of a number of medications. Thirty-five percent of all prescription medications in the United States are consumed by adults 65 and older. This means the senior adult population is significantly more likely to experience dry mouth as they age because of the likelihood that they will be taking one or more prescription drugs.
In some cases, if you’re experiencing dry mouth, your doctor can change your medication. But, in other cases, especially if your dry mouth is related to another medical condition such as diabetes, you may need to find ways to compensate, such as drinking more water or chewing sugarless gum to help stimulate the production of saliva.
4. Oral Cancer
Among the more serious oral health issues in aging is oral cancer. Men over the age of 50 have the highest risk of developing a form of oral cancer, typically found in the cheeks, tongue, throat, mouth or lips. Older adults who have been smokers, used smokeless tobacco products or consumed higher levels of alcohol are also at greater risk. Although oral cancer is treatable and has a relatively high survival rate, it does still require chemotherapy and/or radiation to treat it.
5. Receding Gums and Root Decay
Some older adults will find that, over time, their gums begin to recede, leaving the roots of their teeth exposed and vulnerable to decay. Because roots aren’t covered by enamel, they don’t have any other protection besides the gums. If the roots become exposed and worn, they may no longer be able to hold the tooth in place properly. In some cases, adults may be able to undergo a dental procedure to build their gum line up and prevent further decay.
6. Inability to Maintain Oral Health Routine
In some cases, an older adult’s oral health may be negatively impacted because they are no longer able to brush or floss on their own. Arthritis may prevent them from being able to grip a toothbrush or hold on to dental floss like they used to. Adults suffering from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia may not remember to brush each day, or they may forget how to floss their teeth.
It’s easy to take the ability to hold a toothbrush for granted — until you can’t anymore. Adults who live alone or who do not have consistent help from a loved one or professional caregiver may find it easier to overlook or ignore their oral health rather than ask for help.
How to Maintain Good Dental Health as You Age
It’s true that older adults do have a higher risk for dental problems, but the good news is that dental problems are easily preventable — even when you’re older!
Wondering how to keep teeth healthy as you age? Take a look at these tips.
1. Schedule Regular Dental Visits
A routine dental visit is often called a “preventative visit” because it’s designed to prevent the onset of oral health problems. As you age, it may be tempting to let your dental visits slip down on the priority list, but now is the time to become even more vigilant about visiting your dentist twice a year for regular cleanings and checkups. While regular visits may not prevent you from ever experiencing oral health issues, they are essential to early detection and treatment, ultimately keeping your teeth healthier and intact. The sooner you detect a problem, the easier it will be to correct it!
2. Brush and Floss
We can’t stress enough the importance of oral care for elderly adults. If you aren’t already in the habit, make a point to brush your teeth twice a day and floss at least once a day. Use a toothpaste with fluoride in it, and use a toothbrush with soft bristles to protect your gums. In some cases, you may benefit from using an electric toothbrush for an even cleaner mouth. If you aren’t sure what kind of toothbrush is best for your mouth, talk with your dentist at one of your regular visits.
It’s also a good idea to incorporate an antiseptic mouthwash into your oral health routine. Used one to two times a day after brushing, a good mouthwash can provide extra defense against the unwanted growth of excess bacteria in your mouth.
3. Don’t Chew Hard Stuff
While there’s no way to dial back the clock, you can protect what you still have by avoiding chewing or biting ice, hard candy or harder nuts — anything that could lead to a chipped or broken tooth.
It’s also a good idea to consume acidic foods, as well as sugary and starchy foods, in moderation. When you do eat these foods, rinse your mouth out with milk or water or brush your teeth as soon as possible after. The acids and sugars that come from these foods can wear away at the enamel on your teeth.
If you tend to grind your teeth, especially at night, it might be a good idea to start wearing a mouthguard. This will protect your teeth from excessive grinding and its effects, as well as gives your jaw an opportunity to relax from the tension that comes with grinding.
4. Maintain Good Health Throughout Your Body
The condition of your mouth has a direct impact on the health of your entire body. And while you can’t control factors like genetics or environment, you can definitely work to maintain a healthy body. Eat a well-balanced diet that’s low in sugar, and avoid excessive consumption of alcohol.
It’s also important to take the medications your doctor has prescribed to keep other conditions in check. Gum disease has been linked to other health conditions, so if you’re already at risk for heart disease or a stroke, then you don’t want to increase your chances by not taking care of yourself. This is also really important if you have been diagnosed with diabetes. Adults with diabetes have a higher risk of oral health problems because diabetes can reduce the flow of blood to the gums. Having high blood sugar is also a cause of dry mouth, which can increase the unhealthy bacteria on your teeth and in your mouth. If your blood sugar isn’t controlled properly, then you’ll have a higher risk of oral health problems.
5. Quit Smoking
Adults who smoke are six times more likely to develop oral cancers than their non-smoking counterparts. Even if you’ve been a lifelong smoker, it’s never too late to quit. Talk to your doctor about the best way to break your addiction and improve your oral health today.
How to Help Loved Ones Who May Require Assistance
As a caregiver for a loved one, you know firsthand the challenges of helping an older adult maintain good oral hygiene. When an older adult is no longer able to brush their own teeth — or doesn’t remember to do so — it can sometimes be difficult to know how to handle it. Here are a few things you can do.
1. Give Them Gentle Reminders
In some cases, all your loved one may need is a gentle reminder that it’s time to brush or floss. Incorporate it into your daily care routine, just as you would getting dressed, brushing hair and putting on shoes. If you make it a habit, they will be able to maintain their oral hygiene practices, and it will help you remember to remind them, too!
2. Offer Assistance
If your loved one is struggling to maintain good oral hygiene because they can’t hold a toothbrush or get the floss in between their teeth, then it’s time for you to step in. Gently brushing their teeth or helping with a flossing tool can easily be incorporated into a daily care routine. If your loved one is being cared for in a nursing facility or by a home companion, make sure to inquire about their dental health practices. Never assume this is being done in your absence.
3. Encourage Regular Dental Visits
As adults age, leaving the house for dental appointments may become more challenging, but it’s more important than ever. Offering them rides and appointment reminders is a great way to keep their oral health on track. Depending on your loved ones’ needs, you can help them locate a dentist who specializes in caring for elderly patients, using the referral tool from the Special Care Dentistry Association.
If your loved one is under the care of a nursing home, make sure to inquire about their policies regarding dental care so that you can make additional arrangements if needed.
4. Be Proactive
Although it may seem awkward to talk to your parent or loved one about their dental hygiene, we can’t stress enough the importance of doing so. Oral health has a huge impact on all the body’s systems, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted at any age. Even if your loved one does have dentures, it’s important to make sure they are comfortable, and their teeth — or dentures — are clean and aren’t preventing them from eating as they should.
Benefits of Personal Care Services for the Elderly
Even the most devoted caregiver can’t be present 24/7. When you can’t be with your loved one, it’s important to have trained, compassionate help. Personal care services for the elderly — such as those offered by Active Home Care — are a great option for those who want to stay in their home but are no longer able to maintain their previous level of independence. Depending on their needs, a skilled nurse or home health aide can be present to help with a variety of home care services, including grocery shopping, meal preparation, light cleaning and personal hygiene — including oral care.
Just because they can’t do the things they used to, your loved one is still a human being with likes and dislikes, needs and desires. And they still deserve to be treated with love and respect by everyone they encounter. Our highly-trained and experienced staff come alongside caregivers to help older adults maintain their independence and dignity every step of the way. In some cases, caregivers find that having a home health aide helps their loved one maintain some of their privacy by not having their adult child assist with certain personal hygiene practices. In other cases, seeing another familiar face on a regular basis can provide much-needed companionship and social interaction.
Consider Active Home Care
Looking for personal care services in the Monroe and Miami-Dade County area? Active Home Care is a licensed nurse registry providing referrals for home health services. We are committed to providing high-quality care options for a variety of needs. Contact us to learn more about our personal care services or schedule a free in-home visit today.