Thanks to good oral health habits, more adults are keeping their natural teeth their entire lives. The key is prevention. The unique dental needs of senior adults include a vital connection between a healthy body and a healthy mouth. Don’t neglect your oral health. It’s an important part of being Mouth Healthy for Life.
Just 60 years ago, it was an assumption that as we age we would lose our natural teeth. But, that’s not the case for today’s older adults who are keeping their natural teeth longer than ever before. A healthy mouth and teeth help you look good, eat delicious and nutritious foods, and speak clearly and confidently. Being mouth healthy is essential for good quality of life.
Your mouth is the gateway to your body
Maintaining good oral health habits now is especially important because unhealthy bacteria in the mouth not only can harm your teeth and gums but may be associated with serious medical conditions. Research has shown that infections in the mouth may be associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, pneumonia and other health problems that are common in older adults. It really only takes a few simple steps, brushing and flossing daily, visiting your dentist regularly and eating nutritious foods to be Mouth Healthy for Life.
Brush and Floss Daily
Brushing and flossing your teeth is just as important for you as it is for your grandchildren. Even though it may have been years since you’ve had a cavity, your risk of cavities increases with age. One of the reasons is dry mouth—a common side effect of many prescription medications. Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Choose a toothbrush with soft bristles and a small head to get to those hard to reach areas. Replace your toothbrush every three or four months, or sooner if the bristles becomes frayed. If you have arthritis or other condition that limits movement, try an electric toothbrush. Clean between teeth daily with floss. If floss is too difficult to work with, try a floss pick or tiny brushes made specifically to clean between teeth. When you’re buying oral care products, look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance. The ADA Seal has been around since 1931, and when you see it on a package you can trust that the product is safe and does what the manufacturer advertises.
Clean Dentures Daily
Bacteria stick to your teeth and also to full or partial dentures. If you wear dentures, remember to clean them on a daily basis with cleaners made specifically for dentures. Do not use toothpastes for natural teeth or household cleaners, which are too abrasive and can damage dentures that can be expensive to replace. Take your dentures out of your mouth for at least four hours every 24 hours to keep the lining of your mouth healthy. It’s best to remove your full or partial dentures at night. Your dentist will provide you with instructions about how long your dentures should be worn each day.
Visit a Dentist Regularly
Get regular dental checkups at least once a year – please do not wait until you have pain. Why? As you age, the nerves inside your teeth become smaller and less sensitive. By the time you feel pain from a cavity, it may be too late and you may lose your tooth. There are also more serious conditions that your dentist will look for, like oral cancer and gum disease, which do not always cause pain until the advanced stages of the disease. By then, it’s more difficult and costly to treat. When you go to your dentist for a check-up bring the following information:
List of medications, including vitamins, herbal remedies, and over-the-counter medications
List of medical conditions and allergies
Information and phone numbers of all health care providers, doctors, and your previous dentist
Information about your emergency contacts, someone who can help make decisions on your behalf in the case of a medical emergency
Dental insurance or Medicaid cards
Your dentures or partials, even if you don’t wear them
Be sure to talk with your dentist about how to properly secure and dispose of any unused, unwanted or expired medications, especially if there are any children in the household. Also, take the time to talk with your children and/or grandchildren about the dangers of using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.
If you don’t currently have a dentist, you can search for one at ADA® Find-a-Dentist™. Simply put in your address for a list of ADA member dentists near your home.
Drink Water with Fluoride
No matter what age you are, drinking water with fluoride helps prevent toothdecay. Fluoride is nature’s cavity fighter. Many community water systems contain added fluoride, but if you prefer bottled water, check the label because some do not contain fluoride. And, some home water filters remove fluoride from the tap water. Visit the ADA Seal product search page for a list of water filters that do not remove fluoride from tap water.
It’s never too late to quit smoking. Smoking increases problems with gum disease, tooth decay and tooth loss. It also slows down healing after dental procedures and can decrease the success rate of dental implants. Talk to your dentist about quitting. There are tobacco cessation programs, over-the counter products and prescription medications that your dentist may prescribe or recommend to help you quit for good. Smokefree.gov is another good resource to help you quit today.
The Link Between Medications and Cavities
You may wonder why you’re suddenly getting cavities when you haven’t had them in years. As we get older, we enter a second round of cavity prone years. One common cause of cavities in older adults is dry mouth. Dry mouth is not a normal part of aging. However, it is a side-effect in more than 500 medications, including those for allergies or asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pain, anxiety or depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.This is just one reason why it’s so important to tell your dentist about any medications that you’re taking. Your dentist can make recommendations to help relieve your dry mouth symptoms and prevent cavities. Here are some common recommendations:
Use over-the-counter oral moisturizers, such as a spray or mouthwash.
Consult with your physician on whether to change the medication or dosage.
Drink more water. Carry a water bottle with you, and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Your mouth needs constant lubrication.
Use sugar-free gum or lozenges to stimulate saliva production.
Get a humidifier to help keep moisture in the air.
Avoid foods and beverages that irritate dry mouths, like coffee, alcohol, carbonated soft drinks, and acidic fruit juices.
Your dentist may apply a fluoride gel or varnish to protect your teeth from cavities
Many older adults have gum, or periodontal disease, caused by the bacteria in plaque, which irritate the gums, making them swollen, red and more likely to bleed. One reason gum disease is so widespread among adults is that it’s often a painless condition until the advanced stage. If left untreated, gums can begin to pull away from the teeth and form deepened spaces called pockets where food particles and more plaque may collect. Advanced gum disease can eventually destroy the gums, bone and ligaments supporting the teeth leading to tooth loss. The good news is that with regular dental visits gum disease can be treated or prevented entirely.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are about 35,000 cases of mouth, throat and tongue cancer diagnosed each year. The average age of most people diagnosed with these cancers is 62. During dental visits, your dentist will check for any signs of oral cancer. Regular dental visits are important because in the early stages oral cancer typically does not cause pain and early detection saves lives. Some symptoms you may see include open sores, white or reddish patches, and changes in the lips, tongue and lining of the mouth that lasts for more than two weeks.
Paying for Dental Care after Retirement
Many retirees don’t realize that Medicare does not cover routine dental care. Begin to plan for your dental expenses in advance of retirement so you don’t have to let your dental health suffer once you’re on a fixed income. Organizations like AARP offer supplemental dental insurance plans for their members.
Discount dental plans are another option that typically have a lower monthly fee than traditional dental insurance. You select a dentist within the plan network who has agreed to provide certain services for 10 to 60 percent less than the typical fee. You pay the reduced fee out-of-pocket, and there is no claim paperwork to fill out. You can search for a dental plan at the National Association of Dental Plans website. A recent article on SmartMoney.com investigates the pros and cons of dental price clubs to pay for care. Many dentists offer no interest or low interest financing plans that may be a better option than paying for your dental work on a household credit card with a higher interest rate. If you have concerns about continuing your dental care due to a limited income, talk to your dentist. He or she may be able to offer solutions.
Care giving for a Disabled or Elderly Loved One
You may have a parent, spouse or friend who has difficulty maintaining a healthy mouth on their own. How can you help? Two things are critical:
Help them keep their mouth clean with reminders to brush and floss daily.
Make sure they get to a dentist regularly.
These steps can prevent many problems, but tasks that once seemed so simple can become very challenging. If your loved one is having difficulty with brushing and flossing, talk to a dentist or hygienist who can provide helpful tips or a different approach. There are dentists who specialize in caring for the elderly and disabled. You can locate a specialist through the Special Care Dentistry Association’s referral directory. For those who wear dentures, pay close attention to their eating habits. If they’re having difficulty eating or are not eating as much as usual, denture problems could be the cause.
When you’re caring for someone who is confined to bed, they may have so many health problems that it’s easy to forget about oral health. However, it’s still very important because bacteria from the mouth can be inhaled into the lungs and cause pneumonia.
If you are a representative for a nursing home resident who needs dental care and is enrolled in Medicaid, there is a regulation, called an Incurred Medical Expense, that may help pay for medically necessary care as determined by a dentist. The Medicaid caseworker at the nursing facility and the dentist providing care can work together to apply the Incurred Medical Expense to pay for needed dental benefits.
If you have a heart condition or artificial joint, be sure to tell your dentist. You may think it’s not relevant. After all, what do your heart and joints have to do with your teeth? But, there are conditions with a high risk of infection and an antibiotic is recommended prior to some dental procedures. Dentists follow recommendations that have been developed by the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons in cooperation with the American Dental Association. Talk to your dentist about how these recommendations might apply to you.