Seniors Have Unique Oral Health Challenges

Posted on Aug 19, 2021 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

A friend once told me, “Someone who is a senior is always ten years older than I am.” I loved that, especially since, like most ‘older’ adults, I don’t feel like I’m in my senior years.

Like many individuals who are my age, I like being in the over-55 age group. There are definite advantages to being ‘older and wiser.’ I feel more confident, most self-assured, and more health conscious than I have ever been.

Yet, I am no stranger to the challenges that come with age. No matter how well we eat or how fit we try to stay, the body gradually succumbs to the natural process of aging. Hair thins, eyesight wanes, hearing declines, and flexibility decreases.

Not quite as obvious to many aging adults are the increasing challenges to oral health.

It seems seniors assume that having more aches and pains in joints is to be expected. And, when it comes to the need to replace or repair natural teeth on an ever-increasing basis, it just seems to come with the territory.

As an Asheville periodontist, I can confirm that dental needs do increase as we age. What I can also assure, however is that certain measures can greatly decrease the risks for oral health problems. Most of these are simple, proactive steps that can turn the tables on the potential for tooth loss and oral diseases.

One of the most common contributors to ‘oral aging’ is oral dryness.

It is a fact that we “dry up” as we age. Hair and skin become drier, the cushioning discs between spinal vertebrae shrink and the lubricating coating surrounding joints thins. So, it makes perfect sense that the moist coverage of gum tissues in the mouth is affected as well.

Because of this, the gum tissues that wrap the base of each tooth thin and pull away. As the gums shrink, more area of the natural tooth is exposed. This can leave vulnerable segments of the tooth’s root exposed. When oral bacteria are able to penetrate into this area, teeth are more susceptible to decay.

Too, oral bacteria below the gum line can become infectious. The inflammatory reaction that results can damage the structures that support natural teeth, including bone. Gum disease is the leading cause of adult tooth loss.

The good news? It is actually easy to avoid the repercussions that can result from oral dryness. It’s rather inexpensive and takes mere minutes a day.

First, drink plenty of water. I’m referring to plain, unflavored, unsweetened water. This can be tap or filtered, room temp or chilled. But, water is your most hydrating substance and there is no substitute for it. Colas, tea, coffee, sports drinks or juices do not count. As a matter of fact, many work against you.

The acid and caffeine in many of these are very drying and harmful to tooth enamel as well as challenging to the make-up of saliva. Too, even natural juices contain a sugar, even if it is ‘natural.’ (And adding a squeeze of lemon to water makes it too acidic.)

Next, assess the day-to-day add-in’s your mouth endures. Wine and alcoholic drinks are drying to oral tissues, contain sugar and are more acidic than many people realize. If you indulge in a cocktail, keep a glass of water nearby and take occasional gulps that linger in the mouth before swallowing. This will help dilute the acids and wash out some of the components that are problematic to oral health.

If you have a sweet tooth, don’t think I’m going to tell you to avoid your Snickers bar or bowl of ice-cream. (I’m in your court!) However, think about indulging in your sweet treat just after a meal as a dessert rather than a snack.

The reason is, every time you eat, an acid flows into the mouth through saliva. This is a normal part of early digestion and helps begin the breakdown of food before swallowing. However, this is a potent acid that can actually soften tooth enamel for 20-30 minutes. Thus, if you add your Rocky Road to the end of your dinner as dessert (rather than have it two hours later), you merely extend the acid’s longevity rather than trigger a new acid flow. As with cocktails, try to drink some water following your sweets or swish a couple of times.

Another challenge to oral health for older adults is that they take more medications. It is estimated that 39 percent of seniors take five or more prescriptions each day. ( Surprisingly, many have a side effect of oral dryness. Those most commonly associated with oral dryness include antidepressants, decongestants, antihistamines, muscle relaxants and those prescribed for blood pressure. However, there is a long list of meds (both prescriptive and OTC) with a drying side effect. If you take meds that seem to be causing you to have a drier mouth, there are several things you can do.

If your doctor has no medication substitute that has less drying side effects, up your daily water intake. Be sure to brush thoroughly at least twice a day and floss daily. Use an oral rinse that is specially formulated for oral dryness at least once a day. Try to limit your caffeine and alcohol intake. And, chew sugarless gum occasionally during the day, which will help to activate saliva flow.

Keep in mind that teeth are not rocks. Although they seem rock hard, years of use can leave teeth with fractures and cracks. Teeth that are over-filled by cavity repair can finally give way and break. Be conscious of things that can add undue pressure on teeth, such as chewing ice. Remember, too, that teeth are not meant to be tools. Biting down on hard things that are not meant to be chewed is a sure way to fracture or break teeth.

For post-menopausal females, changes to hormonal levels add further to the risks for periodontal disease and tooth loss. Thus, older females have a particular need to maintain excellent oral health. This may be a good reason to have dental check-ups and cleanings every 4 months versus every six. Speak to your general dentist about the best dental hygiene schedule and at-home routine for your individual needs.

The good news is that tooth loss doesn’t have to be a ‘symptom’ of aging. With proper measures, the majority of your natural teeth can last for your lifetime. If you are missing one or more, however, the best option for replacement is dental implants. These help to preserve supporting bone structure and do not rely on neighboring teeth for support. Too, dental implants, properly selected, placed and maintained are an investment designed to last your lifetime.

For optimal oral health and replacement of teeth via dental implants, it is advised to see a periodontal specialist. This is an expert in the care of gum health and a specialist with advanced skills in dental implants. Begin with a consultation with a periodontist to learn what may be advisable to keep your smile in great shape as you age.

Keep in mind that research has shown that having good oral health has a direct impact on your ability to have a healthier you. Your oral health is intricately connected to your body’s immune system and digestive ‘checks and balances’, which is an especially important asset during this time of viral vulnerability.

When your mouth is healthy, you’ll smile more (another benefit to overall health!), your breath will be fresher, your body will have a ‘leg up’ in maintaining good, overall health, and the time and costs for repairs and tooth replacement will be minimized.

Begin with a thorough periodontal examination by a Board Certified Periodontal Specialist. In my speciality, we are able to treat all stages of periodontal (gum) disease and are the experts in the selection and placement of all types of dental implants (including the All On 4 implant system).

Call 828-274-9440 to schedule or to request additional information.

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