All kids learn the importance of brushing their teeth after every meal, since parents understand that oral and dental health impacts general health in significant ways. This need to maintain oral health is something which needs to stand the test of time, but as adults age they can sometimes forget the actual significance of dental health. For seniors, oral health is just as important as it is for children – maybe even more so.
What’s the problem?
Common dental health issues for seniors include dry mouth, gum disease, tooth loss and darkened teeth. Ill-fitting dentures can also cause specific problems such as thrush. Minor oral health conditions can cause major health problems in fragile seniors. It’s vitally important that even common, and seemingly harmless conditions, be attended to promptly, or else the chances of living independently can be significantly diminished. The following is a summary of some of the common oral afflictions that can plague senior citizens, along with common sense advice on treatment and prevention to ensure future independence.
Gum and periodontal disease is one of the most significant health threats to seniors. Studies have shown a link between poor periodontal health, gum infections and heart disease. Severe oral infections have been associated with life-threatening conditions like bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. Bacteria from the mouth can also travel through the bloodstream and has been linked to auto-immune diseases and illnesses like ulcerative colitis. For the elderly, it’s important to make sure that the good oral health habits of a lifetime are followed. Seniors should brush after every meal, use an anti-bacterial mouthwash and visit the dentist regularly. If necessary, caregivers should monitor a senior’s dental routine and encourage them to visit the dentist. In a person of advanced age, neglect can lead to serious problems quickly and a total loss of independence.
Not all seniors lose teeth at the same rate. In fact, tooth loss among the elderly varies widely and is influenced by education levels and lifetime health habits. Smokers, for example, are much more likely to reach the age of 65 with significant tooth loss than non-smokers. Dry mouth, infections and plaque build-up also contribute to tooth loss in the elderly. Gum disease and infection can become much more serious if missing teeth are not treated early. The first step, as always, is to try and prevent tooth loss with a good oral health routine. Caregivers need to encourage seniors to quit smoking and eat healthy food. Minor problems like dry mouth should not be dismissed and should be treated early. Tooth loss can impact eating and nutrition, even limit one’s speech, so sorting this problem out should be first priority. Always consult a dentist if tooth loss is rapid.
Is there an answer?
When tooth loss is advanced or when teeth need to be removed to cure infection, dentures and dental implants may be necessary. Dental implants are artificial teeth that are anchored into the jaw. They function much like real teeth and work best in patients with no present symptoms of gum disease. Full dentures come in many varieties, from traditional dentures that can be taken in and out, to implant supported dentures that are anchored to the jaw; this promises greater stability and overall independence. Having a full set of teeth is vital for the emotional and physical health of seniors. Being able to eat easily, without pain, will prevent problems with poor nutrition. Caregivers should be vigilant about oral health problems specific to denture wearers. Pay attention to the fit and comfort of the dentures. Poorly fitting dentures can be painful, aggravate the gums and mouth, as well as leading to infections. Psychologically, looking and feeling “normal” after tooth loss will help seniors stay active and connected with the world and preserve their sense of independence.
About the author:
Richard is a freelance writer who promotes good oral health for people of all ages. He has recently been promoting the advantages of braces, good oral hygiene and all on 4. He is @thefreshhealth on Twitter if you wish to pop over.
Photo CC license courtesy Loren Zemlicka