As the saying goes, "You don't have to brush your teeth -- just the ones you want to keep." Oral care is important at any age. But especially as you get older, neglecting the health of your teeth and mouth can have more serious consequences than simply a cavity or two. You may experience problems ranging from losing your teeth altogether to suffering from gum disease or even a heart attack.
One problem you'll face as you age is that your mouth will produce less saliva, leading to dry mouth. Older people often also take more medications -- for everything from Parkinson's disease to hypertension -- and some of these medications may also cause your mouth to dry out. Dry mouth is a problem because it can lead to tooth decay, gum disease and cavities [sources: Mayo Clinic, WebMD]. In addition, some medications may stain or discolor your teeth.
Your mouth contains 32 teeth (or at least it did at one time), and you use those teeth for biting, tearing, crushing and grinding your food, and to help you form words. Let's keep those pearly whites clean and healthy! Click over to the next page for some oral care tips.
Recognize and Treat Dry Mouth
Dry mouth is a big problem with seniors. About one out of every three adults over age 65 suffers from dry mouth [source: WDS]. It's pretty much exactly what it sounds like: You don't produce enough saliva to keep your mouth moist. Dry mouth might not seem like a big deal, but it can make it hard to swallow, speak and eat. Saliva is important for our oral health. It helps wash away the food particles and bacteria that can cause tooth decay or gum problems.
Older people are more prone to dry mouth because they tend to be on more medications and treatments that cause dry mouth. For example, medications for health issues like Parkinson's disease, depression, anxiety, allergies, obesity, hypertension and asthma all cause dry mouth. Cancer treatments involving the head and neck also lead to dry mouth. If you suffer from dry mouth, consider the following remedies:
- sipping water throughout the day (and avoiding alcoholic beverages, which can dehydrate)
- sucking on hard candies
- artificial saliva (which can be prescribed by a doctor)
- avoiding smoking and caffeine
Your dentist may also have treatment options for dry mouth.
Brush and Floss to Prevent Gum Disease
Gum disease is caused by plaque, which is a film of bacteria that forms on your teeth. Plaque is the primary culprit for cavities, and when it's not removed, it turns into tartar. Everyone has plaque -- we can't avoid it; our mouths are constantly full of bacteria. But we need to remove that plaque daily by brushing and flossing. If we don't, plaque can irritate the gums and lead to cavities and gum disease.
Plaque builds up under the gum line and can cause infections that will make your gums feel tender and possibly bleed. This condition is called gingivitis. If gum disease becomes extremely severe, it's called periodontitis and will need to be treated by a professional. In a worst-case scenario, periodontitis could mean losing your teeth. This is why dentists are so adamant about brushing and flossing regularly (brush twice daily with fluoride toothpaste, and floss once per day).
Brushing and flossing should be done daily over the course of one's life to prevent gum disease later in life. As people age, arthritis can make it difficult to floss and brush properly, in which case a dentist may need to provide tools that will make the task easier. Also, dentures should be fitted correctly; when they don't fit correctly, plaque forms more easily and is harder to reach.
Periodontitis, an infection of the gums, is a serious disease that can lead to loss of teeth. This infection invades the soft tissue of your gums and can even work its way into the bone. Severe periodontitis can even lead to an increased risk for heart attack or stroke; one theory is that bacteria enters the bloodstream and attaches itself to fatty plaque in the heart arteries, helping to form clots [source: Mayo Clinic, Perio.org ].
Periodontitis affects the elderly more than the rest of the population -- about 23 percent of adults aged 65 to 74 have it [source: CDC]. This isn't because the elderly are more susceptible to the disease but because, as people live longer and longer, there is a cumulative effect of the risk factors that lead to periodontitis [source: Lamster et al]. Risk factors for periodontal disease include the following:
- improper oral hygiene
- sugary and acidic food
- poorly constructed crowns or fillings
- wisdom teeth
The best way to prevent periodontitis is by brushing and flossing regularly. And, as we found out on the previous page, it may be difficult for older people to brush and floss because of arthritis and decrease in motor skills.
Beware of Tooth Decay
Tooth decay is another important consideration for senior citizens and oral care. In a study of Iowans 79 years or older, tooth decay was extremely prevalent -- about 96 percent had some form of oral decay [source: Smith]. The elderly are more prone to tooth decay because of factors like dry mouth, lack of proper dental care and certain medications.
Here's how tooth decay works: Your teeth are coated with a hard layer called enamel. When plaque starts building up on your teeth, the acids in the plaque can start eating away at the enamel. Eventually, a hole will form -- called a cavity. Once you have a cavity, you can't reverse it. The hole must be filled by a professional.
The best way to avoid tooth decay, of course, is to practice good oral hygiene. No matter what your age, you should floss and brush daily, visit your dentist regularly, and use toothpaste with fluoride. Fluoride is important, as it makes your teeth more resistant to that acid that builds up from plaque.
Care for Your Dentures
Sometimes, even if we start practicing good oral care late in life, the damage is already done. Badly damaged teeth may need to be removed completely. Dentures -- "false teeth" -- can replace all your teeth, or partial dentures can replace just a few that need to be pulled out.
Your dentist will make them to fit your mouth perfectly, but over time they may need to be adjusted, so make sure you see your dentist regularly, even if you have false teeth. Also, remember, just because the teeth aren't real, it doesn't mean you should neglect cleaning them. Food can become lodged in the teeth, causing gum problems or bad breath. Brush dentures with toothpaste specially made for false teeth, and soak them in denture cleanser every night when you go to bed.
Dentures take some getting used to, especially when eating for the first time. Dentists recommend starting out with soft food that won't stick to your teeth. Cut your food into small pieces, chew on both sides of your mouth, and be careful not to eat anything too hot or too cold (you won't feel temperature as well with false teeth).
For more about oral hygiene, check out the links on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at the big diseases that may occur if you have rotting teeth.
- "Dental Care for Seniors." WebMD. 2011. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/dental-care-seniors
- "Dental Health and Fluoride Treatment." WebMD. 2011. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/fluoride-treatment
- "Dry Mouth." MedicineNet.com. 2011. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.medicinenet.com/dry_mouth/article.htm
- "Dry Mouth." Washington Dental Service. 2009. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.deltadentalwa.com/Guest/Public/AboutUs/WDS%20Foundation/Strategic%20Focus%20and%20Programs/Dry%20Mouth.aspx
- "Gum Disease Links to Heart Attack and Stroke." Perio.org. 2011. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.perio.org/consumer/mbc.heart.htm
- Lamster, Northridge and Takamura. "Improving Oral Health for the Elderly: An Interdisciplinary Approach." New York: Springer, 2008. Print. http://books.google.com/books?id=qs2v9Sm-dVoC&lpg=PA3&dq=Boudy%20Elfeky&pg=PA3#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Oral Care as We Age." TruthInAging.com. June 24, 2011. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://truthinaging.com/face/oral-care-as-we-age
- "Oral Health Center." WebMD. 2011. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/default.htm
- "Oral Health for Older Americans." CDC Division of Oral Health. 2006. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/publications/factsheets/adult_older.htm
- "Periodontal disease: Risk Factors." University of Maryland Medical Center. 2011. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/who_gets_periodontal_disease_000024_4.htm
- "Periodontitis." Mayo Clinic. Nov. 23, 2010. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/periodontitis/DS00369
- Smith, Chris. "Study Says Tooth Decay Prevalent Among Oldest Elderly." E-Dental.com. Dec. 7, 2000. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.e-dental.com/article.mvc/Study-says-tooth-decay-prevalent-among-oldest-0001
- "Taking Care of Your Teeth and Mouth." National Institute on Aging. July 22, 2011. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.nia.nih.gov/healthinformation/publications/teeth.htm
- "What is Plaque?" Colgate.com. 2011. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.colgate.com/app/CP/US/EN/OC/Information/Articles/Oral-and-Dental-Health-Basics/Common-Concerns/Plaque-and-Tartar/article/What-is-Plaque.cvsp