What Older Adults Need to Know About Oral Health
As you’ve grown older, have you noticed any of these changes?
- Loss of taste or a change in the way foods used to taste or feel in your mouth
- Chewing or swallowing your foods now takes more effort
- You’re experiencing a very dry mouth
- You're getting more cavities than before
Changes that begin as we become older can have all sorts of effects on oral and overall health. Gum disease, sensitive teeth, diabetes, nutrition challenges, along with dry mouth are just some of the conditions that may put older adults's health at risk . Research has shown that risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes increase with poor oral health.
For instance, these can affect what you choose to eat and how much you enjoy certain foods. If you have problems chewing and swallowing, you may begin to avoid certain foods and change the times or places you eat – and some of these changes may negatively impact quality of life.
As we age, the tongue loses some of its ability to work correctly. Some of us may find it harder to chew and move food around in the mouth. This can lead to swallowing food before it is completed chewed, and cause digestion issues.
Did you know your risk of cavities increases with age?
Tooth decay is not just a problem for children and young adults - it can happen your entire life. In fact, as we get older, we enter a second round of cavity prone years. Dental plaque – or bacteria buildup -- is a problem for your natural and artificial teeth (such as dentures or implants). Plaque produces acids that, over time, eat away at the tooth’s hard outer surface and create a cavity. Even teeth that already have fillings are at risk. Plaque can build up underneath a chipped filling and cause new decay.
Dry mouth contributes to tooth decay
One of the reasons risk of tooth decay increases with age is a condition called dry mouth—a common side effect of many prescription medications taken more commonly later in life. Dry mouth is caused by not having enough saliva in your mouth. Without enough saliva, chewing, eating, swallowing and even talking can be difficult. Dry mouth increases the risk for tooth decay because saliva helps keep harmful germs that cause tooth decay and other oral infections in check. Saliva also contains minerals (calcium and phosphate) that can help reverse early decay. And, if you have dentures, dry mouth can make them uncomfortable and they may not fit as well. Without enough saliva, dentures can also rub against the gums and cause sore spots.
How bacteria in the mouth affects dentures
The bacteria that causes tooth decay can also stick to dentures, so regular care for your dentures are just as important as with natural teeth. If you wear dentures, remember to clean them on a daily basis with cleaners made specifically for dentures. Do not use toothpastes for natural teeth or household cleaners, which are too abrasive and can damage dentures that can be expensive to replace. Take your dentures out of your mouth for at least four hours every 24 hours to keep the lining of your mouth healthy. It’s best to remove your full or partial dentures at night. Your dentist will provide you with instructions about how long your dentures should be worn each day.
Is there a connection between oral health and heart health?
Research continues to uncover connections that indicate why maintaining good oral health is also good for heart health. These connections are especially important to older adults who have higher risk of heart disease. Several studies have shown that periodontal disease increases risk of heart disease. Periodontal disease can also exacerbate existing heart conditions. The link between these diseases is related to inflammation, or swelling of gums or other tissues, caused by bacteria in the mouth leading to gingivitis, and periodontitis (gum disease) if left untreated. Studies show that the bacteria found in periodontal disease, including Streptococcus sanguis, also play a role in strokes, and can spread throughout the body, including the heart.
Many older adults have periodontal (gum) disease, caused by the bacteria in plaque, which irritate the gums, making them swollen. If left untreated, gums can begin to pull away from the teeth and form deepened spaces called pockets where food particles and more plaque may collect. Advanced periodontal disease can eventually destroy the gums, bone and ligaments supporting the teeth leading to tooth loss.
Periodontists at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry are experts in treating periodontal disease.
Tobacco use also increases risk of oral disease
Smoking and tobacco use of any kind increases problems with gum disease, tooth decay, tooth loss and oral cancer. It also slows down healing after dental procedures and can decrease the success rate of dental implants. Additionally, heavy alcohol use increases your chances of developing oral cancer. And using tobacco plus alcohol poses a much greater risk than using either substance alone. The likelihood of oral cancer increases with age. Most people with these cancers are older than 55 when the cancer is found.
It’s important to catch oral cancer early – because treatment works best before the disease has spread. Pain is usually not an early symptom of the disease. Oral cancer screenings at regular checkups are important, especially if you smoke or drink. Additionally, check with your dentist about available tobacco cessation programs, over-the counter products and prescription medications to help you quit. Smokefree.gov is a great resource to help you better understand the risks and quit the habit.
UIC has the only specialized oral medicine clinic in Illinois, and we have have several specialized clinicians and researchers working to fight oral cancer.
What you can do to take control of your oral health
Visit a dentist regularly
Get regular dental checkups and exams at least once a year – even if not experiencing any pain or discomfort. Why? As you age, the nerves inside your teeth become smaller and less sensitive. By the time you feel pain from a cavity, the damage due to decay or periodontal disease may be so advanced that you may lose your tooth—or worse – several teeth. During regular checkups, your dentist will also check for more serious conditions, like oral cancer and periodontal (gum) disease, which do not always cause pain until the advanced stages of the disease. By then, it’s more difficult and costly to treat.
Questions to ask your dentist:
As with primary care physician visits, asking your dentist questions is great way to stay informed and make wise decisions for good long-term oral health. Here are some questions to ask:
- To help prevent cavities long-term – ask what specific dental hygiene practices you should adopt
- Ask if you may be at an elevated risk for oral cancer or periodontal (gum) disease
- For restoring missing teeth and smile – ask if dentures, bridges or dental implants are a good option
To help your dentist better evaluate your oral health and recommend the best treatment plan, bring the following information:
- List of medications, including vitamins, herbal remedies, and over-the-counter medications
- List of medical conditions and allergies
- Information and phone numbers of all health care providers, doctors, and your previous dentist
- Information about your emergency contacts, someone who can help make decisions on your behalf in the case of a medical emergency
- Dental insurance or Medicaid cards
- Your dentures or partials, even if you don’t wear them
Be sure to talk with your dentist about how to properly secure and dispose of any unused, unwanted or expired medications, especially if there are any children in the household. Also, take the time to talk with your children and/or grandchildren about the dangers of using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.
And don’t forget the basics – brushing and flossing!
Just as we do as children, adopting healthy habits for daily oral care is just as important as we age. Don’t forget the basics, such as brushing twice daily with fluoride toothpaste, and flossing in between teeth daily. Choose a toothbrush with soft bristles and a small head to get to those hard to reach areas, especially as gums become more sensitive. An electric toothbrush may be a good alternative to regular toothbrushes if arthritis interferes with wrist and hand movement.
How can I get rid of plaque?
The best way to remove plaque is by brushing and cleaning between your teeth every day. Brushing removes plaque from the tooth surfaces. Brush your teeth twice per day with a soft-bristled brush. The size and shape of your toothbrush should fit your mouth and allow you to reach all areas easily. Use an antimicrobial toothpaste containing fluoride, which helps protect your teeth from decay. Clean between the teeth once a day with floss or interdental cleaners to remove plaque from between the teeth, where the toothbrush can't reach. Flossing is essential to prevent gum disease.
Video: Always Learning: Oral Health Tips for Adults Over 60
(American Dental Association)
University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry
Affordable, Comprehensive Dental Care in Chicago
University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry is Illinois's largest dental care provider. We have 530+ faculty, students and residents serving over 26 thousand patients annually in our clinics and through community health partnerships. We provide comprehensive dental care at affordable rates, with strength in preventive care for children and adults, and specialty care for even the most complex needs. Our student dental clinics operate on reduced fees and accept Medicaid, along with several other payment methods. We help remove the barriers that limit access to dental care through affordable care, education and outreach.
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