Seniors face many physical problems as they age. Since the body is no longer able to replace cells at the same rate it has, seniors can expect to see graying or thinning hair, slower healing times, and wrinkles in the skin. One of the most frustrating and dangerous aspects of aging, however, is in the mouth.
As the Baby Boomer generation ages and people in general live longer, taking care of the mouth becomes more and more important—keeping healthy teeth and healthy mouths is a key to continuing to lengthen lives. Understanding what is normal and what is cause for concern in the mouth of a senior may be the key to that person’s longer, higher-quality living, as well as to overall health.
Normal Oral Health Changes
Attrition, or the wearing away of teeth from use, is a common condition found in older adults. It makes sense—after decades of use, teeth are bound to be duller than they were when first grown. A dentist can check to ensure that this is not causing pain or damage and confirm whether or not teeth should be pulled and/or replaced.
Medications can cause cavities, so a wary eye should be kept on general oral hygiene and on the side effects of prescriptions. Generally, these side effects can be avoided through proper diet and hygiene, but if cavities do develop, they should be identified and fixed as soon as possible to prevent spreading, pain, and possibly more serious infections.
Flossing is particularly important…
Gum disease is a very common infection in adults in America, and it can sometimes be managed to a normal level. Also referred to as periodontal disease, gum disease can typically be avoided through proper hygiene and visits to a dentist or dental hygienist regularly to ensure proper cleaning of the infection. (Flossing is particularly important here!) If a senior is diagnosed with gingivitis (the initial infection, which is common), that person should see a specialist regularly and check gums and teeth for signs of receding gums or inflammation.
Dry mouth, especially as a result of medications, occurs in many older adults. Dry mouth is caused by a reduced amount of saliva produced by the glands in the mouth, and it can affect the abilities to chew, speak, and swallow. It can also cause teeth to break down prematurely. However, these effects can be managed by changing medications. Talking to a doctor about the side effects and the resulting damage to oral health can help to find alternative medications.
Abnormal Oral Health Changes
If left untreated, gingivitis and periodontal disease can become very dangerous. As gums recede, tiny pockets are formed in the mouth. These can become infected easily. They can break down the gums further and even extend into the bone, which can lead to tooth loss and very painful eating. People with diabetes, smokers, and people who are taking medications increase the risk of this disease and its serious symptoms, so be on the lookout for these risk factors. If a senior has one or more risk factors, gums should be observed frequently and regular dental care adhered to.
Cancerous growths or painful lesions can result from smoking, allergic reactions, and even genetics. Having a dentist or doctor check for these (and then a dental surgeon if necessary) to assess their danger will establish the best way to treat them, but they should be considered serious. They can prevent seniors from eating properly and can prevent proper cleaning, which can endanger other aspects of oral health.
If a senior needs dentures, they should be cared for properly…
Massive tooth loss, sometimes ending in getting dentures, can have a huge impact on the health of a senior. Not only does the removal of most or all of the teeth involve serious oral health complications, it can also reduce self-esteem. Being self-conscious of one’s teeth and the use of dentures can cause seniors to withdraw socially or eat less, which has deeper implications for their general health. If a senior needs dentures, they should be cared for properly and used with all dignity and respect. Removing teeth that are infected or rotten should not be avoided since they can cause other problems or spread infections into the jawbone.
Administration on Aging. Oral Health. Available at http://www.aoa.gov/AoA_Programs/HPW/Oral_Health/index.aspx. Retrieved April 28, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oral Health for Older Americans. (July 10, 2013) Available at http://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/publications/factsheets/adult_oral_health/adult_older.htm. Retrieved April 28, 2016.
Gonsalves, W. C., Wrightson, A. S., and Henry, R.G. (October 1, 2008). Common Oral Conditions in Older Persons. American Family Physician, 78(7): 845-852. Available at http://www.aafp.org/afp/2008/1001/p845.html. Retrieved April 28, 2016.
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. (September 2013). Periodontal (Gum) Disease: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments. NIH Publication Number 13-1142 Available at http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/Topics/GumDiseases/PeriodontalGumDisease.htm. Retrieved April 28, 2016.
Vargas, C.M., Kramarow, E.A., and Yellowitz, J.A. (March 2001). The Oral Health of Older Americans. Aging Trends; 3. National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ahcd/agingtrends/03oral.pdf. Retrieved April 28, 2016.