Most people have a misconception that oral health is only essential to maintain the longevity of our pearly white teeth. However, they do not understand that oral health is directly linked to overall health and well-being.
Our mouth is a window for nutrients as well as pathogens that can harm the body. This is crucial, especially in the elderly population, as they have relatively weak immunity. Moreover, older people have a history of systemic illness, which makes oral health an essential factor in maintaining their well-being.
Several changes occur in the mouth as the age advances. Such changes make the mouth susceptible to tooth decay and gum disease. Therefore, routine dental check-ups and maintenance of regular oral hygiene are vital for saving the natural teeth.
Today’s article will highlight the importance of oral health-up in the older population. Furthermore, we will discuss the changes oral tissues undergo with age.
Why is oral health essential for the older population?
Older adults are usually considered under an age group with a high risk of oral and tooth infections. Losing teeth, which comes as a consequence of tooth infection, can bring significant changes in facial appearance. Moreover, it will reduce the functionality of the mouth in terms of chewing food and speaking. Such events have a direct impact on the nutrition and body energy levels of older adults.
Poor oral health is widespread with increasing age. This can be proven when tooth decay and cavity formations occur twice as often among older adults as they do in younger adults. Additionally, the prevalence of gum disease and advanced periodontitis also increases with age. (1)
While you may think that the effects of poor oral hygiene are limited to the oral cavity, you might be surprised to know that this is not true. Many research studies have shown secure connections between poor oral hygiene and heart disease. Periodontal disease is one of the prime culprits that have the potential to exacerbate an existing heart condition.
Let’s understand how periodontal disease affects the heart –
- Gum diseases often lead to inflammation or swelling of gums caused by the accumulation of harmful bacteria in the mouth.
- Most older adults do not take care of their oral health and leave the disease untreated for a long time
- Clinical studies revealed that the bacteria found in periodontal disease contain strains of Streptococcus sanguis – a crucial bacteria that causes heart strokes. (2)
- Such bacteria grow deep in the periodontal pocket and destroy the gums, bone, and ligaments and finally transmit through the bloodstream into the heart valves.
- As they reside in the valves, they grow to form several vegetations that affect the pumping action of the heart, causing a stroke.
- The harmful effects of such bacteria also threaten the worsening of diabetes, liver function, and knee or hip replacement failure.
Practicing good oral hygiene is crucial to preventing such deadly infections in the mouth. Additionally, it helps to maintain the overall health and well-being of the individual. Some of the useful tips that you can follow to maintain good oral hygiene include using fluoride treatments and getting regular professional dental check-ups. Such steps help to keep the disease under control. (3)
Older adults with artificial joints and artificial heart valves need to be extra careful. The dentist usually takes a medical history to plan treatment in alignment with the underlying illness. Moreover, they make every preventive step to minimize the risk of oral disease and promote good oral hygiene by educating the patients.
What are the oral changes that happen with age?
Some of the frequent oral changes that occur with advancing age include –
Change in the color of the teeth
Usually, as we age, the tooth enamel starts to wear away due to erosion or attrition. Such changes lead to thinning of the enamel and exposure of dentin, a bone-like tissue that underlies the tooth enamel. Dentin has the potential to get stained easily from stain-causing foods and beverages.
Moreover, its natural yellow color adds on to the color changes in the teeth. However, it may indicate a more severe problem if you see black or brown discoloration on a tooth.
One of the common consequences of advancing age is reduced salivary flow in the mouth. This can lead to bad breath, increased risk of tooth decay, and gum irritation. Often dry mouth also occurs due to radiation from cancer treatment. Additionally, autoimmune diseases like Sjogren’s syndrome and medication side effects can also lead to dryness of the mouth. (4)
Tooth and Root decay
As mentioned above, decreased salivary flow contributes to increasing the risk of tooth decay. Poor oral hygiene also plays a crucial role in increasing plaque and bacteria that can infect the tooth. Additionally, with gum recession, the tooth roots become exposed and prone to decay primarily because of a lack of protective tooth enamel.
Gum disease is usually caused by dental plaque. However, some contributing factors may include the use of tobacco products, poor-fitting dental bridge and dentures, poor diets, and diseases like anemia, cancer, and diabetes. Advanced gum diseases have the potential to cause tooth mobility and eventually, loss of teeth.
With the advancing problems of tooth decay and gum disease, the exposed areas of the tooth can lead to increased tooth sensitivity. If the problem persists, it can permanently damage the pulp tissue and increase the pain and discomfort. (5)
Altered taste sensation
Advancing age also impairs the sense of taste due to multiple effects of oral diseases, medications, and prolonged use of acrylic dentures. Moreover, the taste buds may be plugged with oral bacteria and plaque that diminishes the sense of taste in the mouth.
Some other changes in the mouth that happen with age include –
- Changes in the jaw bone
- Denture-induced stomatitis
- Oral infections such as viral, bacterial and fungal diseases
How can professional dental check-ups help to maintain good oral health?
Usually, a professional dental check-up is scheduled to look after the oral health status of the individual and treat the problematic areas to maintain good oral health and hygiene. At first, the dentist may ask a series of questions which may include:
- Details about your last dental visit
- any recent noticeable changes in the mouth
- noticeable loose or sensitive teeth
- any difficulty tasting, chewing or swallowing
- presence of any pain, discomfort, sores, or bleeding in your mouth
- the appearance of any lumps, bumps, or swellings in your mouth
- underlying systemic illness or recent surgeries
after taking a detailed history of the patient, the dentist performs a thorough oral exam, including the following:
- extraoral examination of the face and neck to check for skin discoloration, moles, sores
- analysis of the bite to detect problems in the alignment of the teeth while opening and closing your mouth
- analysis of the jaw to check for clicking and popping in the temporomandibular joint
- examination of the lymph nodes and salivary glands to detect any swelling or lumps (6)
- analysis of inner cheeks to check for infections, ulcers, traumatic injuries
- Examine the tongue and other interior surfaces such as the floor of the mouth, soft and hard palate, gum tissue to look for infection or oral cancer
- finally, the teeth to check for decay, condition of fillings, and cracks
- check the dentures for fit and fractures
How can you maintain good oral health and hygiene?
Some of the tips to maintain good oral hygiene at home may include –
- follow up with your routine dental visits so that the dentist can detect any oral infection or disease at the early stage. Moreover, it will save the vitality of the surrounding oral tissues by reducing disease spread.
- Follow a regular oral hygiene routine, which includes brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and flossing once daily.
- Use an antibacterial mouthwash to reduce the buildup of plaque. Moreover, to get a fresh breath that lasts for the whole day.
- Use an electric toothbrush if you have joint pain or arthritis. Ask your dentist to suggest a good quality electric toothbrush that can ease your problems and take you one step towards a healthy smile.
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco and cigarettes. These habits are not only debilitating for the oral tissues but also affects the overall health and well being. Moreover, tobacco has been linked to an increased risk of mouth and throat cancer. Additionally, it also improves heart disease.
- Monitor your sugar intake regularly(7)
- Switch to smart snacking that is eating healthy food at particular periods during the day.
- Avoid eating sugary food such as sweets, candy, and soda
- consult a dentist to substitute your medication for one that doesn’t produce dry mouth.
- drink plenty of water
- chew sugar-free gum to increase salivary flow in the mouth
- Care for your dentures by using a denture cleaning solution and brush. Use cleaning solutions to soak the denture overnight. Consult a dentist to get adjustments done for proper fit.
What are the financial aid options for the older population?
Usually, dental insurance covers the cost of routine dental check-ups that allow up to two visits per year in six months. However, If you are a senior citizen on a limited or fixed income, and are unable to afford regular dental care, look for dentists that services at discounted rates.
Most dentists also run a dental society-sponsored assistance program that offers dental services to the older population at a lower rate. Community dental clinics and dental school clinics are also an excellent option for older people to get their dental needs checked at a reasonable cost.
Take away message
Oral health is crucial for the overall health and well being of the patient, especially the older adults. This is because, as the age advances, the body and oral cavity go through a series of changes that make the individual susceptible to infections and cancer formation.
Some of the oral changes that occur with age include increased tooth decay, gum disease, tooth loss, bone loss, and denture-induced stomatitis. Routine dental check-ups play a crucial role in maintaining the health and well-being of the individual. Moreover, doing your part in maintaining good oral hygiene at home will take you a long way in saving the natural teeth in the mouth.
While most dental insurance may cover the cost of routine dental check-ups, as a senior citizen, you can also contact your local dentist, community health center, and dental schools to get dental services at a discounted rate.