Senior Years Add To Challenges Of Enjoying A Healthy Smile

Posted on Feb 06, 2018 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

Every age has its challenges. As a teen, I longed to have more freedom. As a twenty-something, I wanted to feel more established and confident in my career. In my thirties and forties, I craved more downtime as I juggled a jam-packed schedule with a home, children, a periodontal practice, and friends.

With each decade, I think we find ourselves with similar challenges. Now, like others who have entered their ‘mature’ years, health challenges seem to be more prominent in my life.

Although senior age may have its challenges, from an oral health standpoint, today’s senior is in a far better position than that experienced by our grandparents.

Most of us can recall seeing our grandparents’ dentures soaking in a glass by the bathroom sink each night. Today’s senior knows that keeping their natural teeth all their life is very possible (and highly beneficial to their overall health).

I’d like to address some of the challenges that the senior smile faces today and how they can decrease the risk for developing problems or losing teeth.

• Dry Mouth: The aging process leaves us less, well… supple. It causes our skin to sag, leads to more susceptibility for skin problems, and produces less moisture in our mouths. As saliva production declines, there is less of a rinsing agent to move bacteria and food particles from the mouth. This increases the risk for oral bacteria accumulation. It is no wonder that seniors have a higher incidence of gum disease – over 70 percent for those over the age of 65 (compared to 47.2 percent for ages 30 and over). (

• Poor Manual Dexterity: The aging process may cause some people to have achy joints or dexterity difficulties. When it becomes difficult to brush and floss thoroughly, the potential for bacteria accumulation in the mouth increases. As oral bacteria amass, the overload can lead to decay and gum disease.

• Tooth Loss: Many people lose one or several teeth before reaching their senior years. This may be due to accidents, health problems or gum disease (the number one cause for adult tooth loss). However, it is important to know that losing a natural tooth sets off a domino effect. Statistics show the tooth most likely to be lost next is a tooth adjacent to the missing area.

• Financial Limitations: Some of us joke about elders rushing to ‘early bird specials’ or sneaking sugar packets into purses, but the truth is, people who are retired must live on tighter budgets. When health coverages are no longer available through one’s employer, managing increased expenses for doctors’ visits, medications and unexpected problems can mean sacrifices in other areas. For some people, they forgo their 6-month dental checkups, assuming that “if nothing hurts, then nothing is wrong.” However, the lack of preventive measures when it comes to oral health can catch up to a senior in other, rather expensive ways.

• Accessibility To Care: For those of us who drive, getting to a dental office for a cleaning or to treat a problem is far simpler than those who no longer drive. When a senior has to recruit a friend or family member to accomplish these needs, the frequency in dental care can take a back seat.

• Diet: Cooking for one or two can mean a rather altered blend of nutritious foods. It may seem so much easier and even more economical to open a can rather than put a pot on to boil. Fresh foods also require more frequent visits to the grocery store. For those who rely on others for transportation, this may lead to greater consumption of processed foods laden in sugar or starchy fillers. This increases the bacteria level in the mouth.

So, how does a senior avoid tooth decay, tooth loss and gum disease? Here are some recommendations:

– Nothing is as effective or as economical as prevention. Be committed to twice-a-day brushing and daily flossing. Brush for at least two minutes each time and finish up by brushing the tongue, where millions of oral bacteria hide. If brushing is difficult, use an electronic toothbrush or wrap the foam from a hair roller around the handle for a better grip. If flossing is awkward, use a water flosser. These are just as effective as flossing and easy to use.

 – Although money may be tighter on a retired budget, look at your 6-month dental checkups for the savings they provide. These visits remove plaque and tartar buildup that can lead to cavities and gum disease. Liken these visits to having your vehicle’s oil changed. You don’t have to do it, but it will eventually cost you big-time if you don’t.

 – Be conscious of what you eat and how often you eat. Try to steer clear of sweets and carbs, opting for fresh fruits and veggies. Limit snacking or sipping colas over an extended period of time. Remember — every time you eat or drink (other than water), an acid attack begins in your mouth. If you like a sweet treat during the day, have it for dessert after a meal when an acid attack is already underway. This will keep a new one from bombarding your precious tooth enamel with this harsh acid.

 – Keep your mouth moist. Drink pure, filtered water throughout the day. This will keep your mouth fresher and hydrates the entire body at the same time. Try to limit things that are drying to the mouth. This includes caffeinated beverages (coffee, tea, hot chocolate) and spicy foods. If you take medications that are drying to the mouth, consider using an over-the-counter oral rinse designed to replenish oral moisture. If you smoke, you have special challenges with drying. Be very conscious of the moistness level in your mouth.

 – If you are missing teeth, it is important to replace them with an option that is comfortable, secure and stable. I’ve had patients who avoided dining with friends for years because of unstable dentures. I’ve also had patients who developed health problems because their diet consisted of soft foods that dissolved easily in the mouth. Dental implants restore the ability to eat a healthy diet comfortably and laugh with friends without worry. The investment of implants will last your lifetime and bring you everyday pleasure. I’ve never had a dental implant patient who didn’t say, “It’s the best investment I’ve ever made.” That’s well-worth looking into.

Be a senior who smiles and enjoys the confidence and pleasures of growing older! Call 828-274-9440 to schedule a consultation. During this time, we’ll discuss your individual needs and the options that may be best for you. And, if financial challenges exist, we’ll have our Financial Coordinator discuss easy payment options.


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