The need to maintain good oral health is important as we age. Many years ago, older adults used to typically need dentures later in life. As oral health care has evolved, now more than 75% of those over the age of 65 have some remaining natural teeth. Older individuals still experience higher rates of problems such as gum disease, oral cancer, infections, and more.
In looking at current dental health data, disparities do exist in certain segments of the population. Adults between 20 and 64 years of age have an average of 24.92 teeth remaining of a possible 32. In this age group, only 3.75% have zero remaining teeth. Those segments that are most likely to experience tooth loss include tobacco users, Blacks and Hispanics, and those with low levels of education.
# of Teeth
20 to 34
35 to 49
50 to 64
Strength of Teeth
Did you know that your molars are capable of exerting roughly 200 pounds of pressure? Despite the amazing strength of our teeth, they are still susceptible to “wear and tear” and a host of other potential problems. Our teeth are exposed each day to wear from when we eat and drink. The act of simply chewing our food can begin to weaken the exterior of our teeth.
Enamel is a natural protective layer on the exterior of the teeth. Enamel can be weakened by acids such as those in citrus fruits and carbonated drinks. If the enamel is cracked or broken, the interior of the tooth becomes vulnerable. Nerves are present within the teeth that can become inflamed and painful.
Maintaining Strong Gums
Having healthy gums is very important for maintaining healthy teeth. The gums can be considered the support structure for the teeth. The tissues that comprise the gums tend to recede as we age. If the soft tissues or roots become exposed, the damage tends to follow.
Those who suffer from periodontal disease tend to experience receding gum lines and a loosening of the teeth. Many older adults also have deteriorating jawbones. In the earlier stages of periodontal disease, there is usually an accumulation of plague. Plague is a sticky layer of film that can build up on the teeth. It is filled with bacteria that can begin to harm the teeth and gums when regular brushing and flossing does not occur.
Sugars that are in the food we eat mix with the plaque to produce an acid that is harmful to tooth enamel. After some time, this problem can lead to holes or cavities in the tooth. Plague is particularly problematic when it burrows into the spaces between the teeth and gums. Some of the early signs include redness, swelling, sensitivity, and other irritation.
Gum disease often goes undetected for long periods, particularly when the individual does not experience pain. In many cases, the disease has developed significantly before they seek treatment for the first time. The disease is progressive, as the spaces between the gum and tooth expand in size.
After the condition worsens, the bone and ligaments that support the teeth begin to erode. Some of the most common signs of the condition include bleeding when brushing the teeth, loosening of the teeth, and bad breath. Treatment may involve removing accumulations of hardened plaque and infected tissue and treatment with antibiotics.
The risks of developing forms of oral cancer increase with age. Tobacco users are specifically at a higher risk. This is the case with those who smoke and use chewing tobacco products. The lips are the most common location where oral cancer develops, with the tongue being the second most common.
In the initial stages, oral cancer may appear in patches that develop with a red or white color. When these growths last for several weeks, it is strongly encouraged that you seek a dental exam. Tobacco use is also attributed to other oral health concerns because it may cause excessive dryness in the mouth.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 35,000 cases of cancer are diagnosed in the mouth, throat, and tongue annually. The average age of those who are diagnosed is 62. The development of cancer is often detected in the early stages among those who regularly visit their dentist. In extreme cases, those with oral cancer will develop open sores.
Excessive dryness in the mouth, known as xerostomia, is a common cause of oral health problems. Saliva is a fluid that naturally cleanings and protects the teeth. It helps to dilute the potency is harmful acids, bacterial growth, and more. Dryness in the mouth does tend to increase as we age. Beverages containing caffeine and alcohol may result in dryness also.
There are a variety of medications that have dry mouth as a potential side effect. Some of these medications include calcium-channel blockers and drugs for preventing seizures. It is generally encouraged that we consume an adequate amount of water. Those experiencing a dry mouth may also consider sugar-free gums, candies or over-the-counter oral moisturizers.
Those who are experiencing problems with dry mouth may be taking medication that is creating the dryness. It these cases you should consult with a doctor. There may be an effective alternative product that will not have this side effect.
Grinding the Teeth
In medical terms, excessive grinding of the teeth is referred to as bruxism. This can lead to harmful erosion of enamel and other damage to the teeth. It is particularly problematic when sleeping because the individual is not aware of what they doing. Your dental professional may suggest a special guard be worn at night.
Oral Health and Other Health Problems
The body is a large complex system; therefore, a medical condition in one region of the body can impact others. Data suggests that inflammation of the gums is often related to diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory problems. Research has also shown that when bacteria accumulate in the gums, it may enter the blood and create problems elsewhere in the body.
Among those aged 60 and over, almost 25% are coping with diabetes. When the blood sugar levels are not controlled, the blood vessels that maintain blood flow to the gums may be unstable. When blood sugar is high, the increased sugar in oral fluid serves as food for bacteria.
Effects of Diminishing Ability to Taste
Older individuals commonly will experience a reduced ability to taste. More than 200,000 Americans each year visit their doctor with concerns regarding a reduced ability to taste or smell. Food may taste consistently bland. This problem leads many people to begin using higher levels of seasonings. This often exposes the teeth and the body to excessive amounts of salt or spicy, sweet or acidic flavor enhancers.
Psychological Effects of Tooth Loss
Loose or missing teeth make eating and speaking potentially more difficult. Those with poor oral health are among those most likely to also experience depression and self-consciousness that can adversely impact the quality of life. Problems such as missing teeth may reduce confidence.
Oral Health Affordability Among Older Adults
Affordability is a common concern among older Americans. Older people are much more likely to experience dental problems at a time when they are increasingly relying on a fixed income.
Traditional Medicare options do not cover most preventative dental treatment or dental procedures. Many older Americans seek Medicare Advantage Plans, informally known as Medicare Part C because they are generally more comprehensive. These plans tend to offer dental, vision, and hearing coverage that Medicare does not.
Another option is purchasing dental insurance. Some organizations that advocate for seniors such as AARP have affordable options. The quality of dental insurance plans may vary considerably. Many have found that these insurance plans provide insufficient coverage, leaving the patient with large “out-of-pocket” expenses.
Some dental practices offer to finance expensive procedures. It is critical that those approaching their older years allocate savings toward dental care, find an adequate dental insurance plan or some other option.
Best Practices for Preventing Oral Health Problems
There are many ways to prevent and properly care for your oral health. Some of these recommendations are as follows:
- Brush your teeth at least twice per day
- Brush the tongue
- Remember that flossing the teeth each day is important
- Older adults that may struggle from arthritis or other difficulties may consider an electric toothbrush
- Consider adding a good mouthwash to your routine
- Limit consumption of sugary or acidic foods and beverages
- Visit your dentist twice a year
Provider of Comprehensive Dental Care for the Entire Family
The team at East Valley Dental Professionals provides high-quality pediatric and senior dental care—as well for all ages in between! For more than 30 years, we have used the latest practices and technology to deliver results for patients throughout the Mesa area. Our friendly staff encourages you to call us for an appointment today at (480) 838-3033.