Seniors Have Special Dental Concerns
Your best investment is to take care of the teeth that you have. With proper care, your natural teeth can easily last a lifetime. No different than caring for and maintaining your car or home, staying on top of your oral health with preventative maintenance is far easier on you over the long term than trying to repair major damage after long periods of neglect.
Older adults are more likely to keep their teeth for a lifetime than they were a decade ago. However, older people tend to have more dental issues and regular dental visits become even more important. Seniors have the highest rates of periodontal disease and require more active intervention in order to maintain good oral health. Dental care for seniors involves some unique issues specific to that age group. Those who are proactive in caring for their teeth and gums will see tangible benefits, substantially improving their overall health and quality of life.
Also, childhood fillings have birthdays too. As fillings get older, they can weaken or crack allowing bacteria to seep into your tooth, causing more decay. Regular check-ups give your dentist a chance to check your fillings and replace them as needed. Needless to say, regularly scheduled dental visits are important for everyone. But for seniors, they are critical.
The most visible dental problem for seniors is tooth color. Because the tooth-covering enamel gets thinner as we age, and the discolored dentin begins to show through. Finally, chips or other injuries can discolor a tooth, especially if the tooth’s pulp, the tooth’s center made up of living connective tissue and blood vessels, has been damaged.
Many of us consume a variety of teeth-staining products such as coffee, wine, tea, cola, or tobacco over a period of decades. These, as well as other foods and drinks, can cause “extrinsic” stains, that is, stains that originate from the outside. When these products come in contact with the teeth, they stain the enamel, the outer layer of the tooth.
You can take steps to prevent tooth discoloration by avoiding stain-causing foods and beverages such as coffee, tea, wine, sports drinks, hard candy, berries and tomato sauce. If possible, when you do drink these beverages, consider using a straw to keep stain-causing dyes away from your teeth. Brushing after every meal will help prevent some stains, and rinsing your mouth with water after eating or drinking stain-causing foods and liquids also helps.
Dentists have effective solutions to brighten your smile. Some tooth discoloration, like coffee stains, can be removed with a professional cleaning. Teeth can also be whitened with a bleaching gel. With today’s advances in cosmetic dentistry, there is no reason to accept discolored teeth that hurt your self-confidence and discourage you from showing the world your beautiful smile. We can get them looking as good as new.
Periodontal Disease (Gingivitis)
In addition to a decline in the aesthetics of our teeth, statistics indicate that over 80% of seniors have some form of periodontal disease. Certain groups such as older seniors are more likely to have periodontal disease. Periodontal problems run the gamut from gingivitis (simple gum inflammation) to full-blown bone damage. When gums recede and pull away from the teeth, pockets form. These pockets become storage bins for food and bacteria; gum tissue becomes inflamed and infected. Also, the softer, exposed root portion of the tooth is more susceptible to decay. Because of an increase in periodontal problems, seniors, even those who have been blessed with relatively few dental problems in the past, can find themselves with loose teeth and cavities.
Smoking is one of the most significant risk factors for gum disease, and smokers are at much higher risk for developing periodontitis than nonsmokers. Smoking impairs blood flow to the gums making them more vulnerable to infection, and the smoke causes inflammation and cell damage.
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) Disorders
Another dental issue affecting seniors is temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. Your TMJ is a hinge joint that connects your jaw to the temporal bones of your skull that are in front of each ear. The TMJ, the only joint in your skull, allows you to move your jaw up and down and side to side. This joint enables us to talk, chew, and yawn. For the elderly, the development of TMJ is not uncommon. As degeneration and loss of cartilage occur due to the normal process of aging, the jaw can shift and play havoc on a senior’s bite. If you hear popping or clicking sounds when moving your jaw, a dentist with training and experience in TMJ disorders can help alleviate a host of problems arising from this condition.
Senior dental problems can be caused or exacerbated by medications. Older adults are likely to take medications that can impact oral health and affect dental treatment. There are literally hundreds of common medications – including antihistamines, diuretics, painkillers, high blood pressure medications and antidepressants – that can cause adverse dental health side effects. These include dry mouth, soft tissue changes, taste changes, and gingival overgrowth. It is important to let your dentist know what medications. They could well be affecting your teeth and gums.
Dry mouth is a common, and often overlooked, source of dental problems with seniors. As we age, we do not produce as much saliva. Saliva is our body’s natural rinse to keep bacteria and food washed away from teeth and gums. An underproduction of our body’s natural mouthwash leaves you more susceptible to tooth decay and periodontal disease. Dry mouth can cause sore throat, problems with speaking, difficulty swallowing and hoarseness. There are various ways to restore moisture, including sugarless gum, oral rinses or artificial saliva products.
Brushing and Flossing Issues
Some seniors have limited manual dexterity because of arthritis, tremors, or other medical conditions. There are various ways to make brushing easier from elongating your toothbrush with a tongue depressor to rigging a tennis ball at the end of your toothbrush for a better grip. Even using a soft washcloth or gauze as well as frequent rinsing helps. If need be, a family member or friend should assist you. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help.
Recognizing Dental Issues
Above all, seniors need to recognize when their mouth, teeth, or gums require dental treatment. Signs and signals include tooth sensitivity, teeth grinding, pain, mouth sores, bumps, swelling, loose teeth, jaw popping or clicking, and the symptoms associated with dry mouth – difficulty quenching thirst, swallowing, and chewing.
Good dental care requires good nutrition, daily oral hygiene, regular dental checkups, maintaining dental appliances such as dentures and dental bridges, and telling your dentist about any medications you are taking or changes to medication. Working together, we’ll keep you smiling in your golden years!