Advancing age puts many seniors at risk for a number of oral health problems, such as:
- Darkened teeth. Caused, to some extent, by changes in dentin -- the bone-like tissue that underlies the tooth enamel -- and by a lifetime of consuming stain-causing foods and beverages. Also caused by thinning of the outer enamel layer that lets the darker yellower dentin show through. A darkened tooth or teeth may be a sign of a more serious problem and should be checked by your dentist.
- Dry mouth. Caused by reduced saliva flow, which can be a result of cancer treatments that use radiation to the head and neck area, as well as certain diseases, such as Sjögren's syndrome, and medication side effects. Many medicines can cause dry mouth.
- Diminished sense of taste. While advancing age impairs the sense of taste, diseases, medications, and dentures can also contribute to this sensory loss.
- Root decay. This is caused by exposure of the tooth root to decay-causing acids. The tooth roots become exposed as gum tissue recedes from the tooth. Roots do not have any enamel to protect them and are more prone to decay than the crown part of the tooth.
- Gum disease. Caused by plaque and made worse by food left in teeth, use of tobacco products, poor-fitting bridges and dentures, poor diets, and certain diseases, such as anemia, cancer, and diabetes, this is often a problem for older adults.
- Tooth loss.Gum disease is a leading cause of tooth loss.
- Uneven jawbone. This is caused by tooth and then not replacing missing teeth. This allows the rest of the teeth to drift and shift into open spaces
- Denture-induced stomatitis. Ill-fitting dentures, poor dental hygiene, or a buildup of the fungus Candida albicans cause this condition, which is inflammation of the tissue underlying a denture.
- Thrush. Diseases or drugs that affect the immune system can trigger the overgrowth of the fungus Candida albicans in the mouth.
Age in and of itself is not a dominant or sole factor in determining oral health. However, certain medical conditions, such as arthritis in the hands and fingers, may make brushing or flossing teeth difficult to impossible to perform. Drugs can also affect oral health and may make a change in your dental treatment necessary.
Oral Hygiene Tips for Seniors
Daily brushing and flossing of natural teeth is essential to keeping them in good oral health. Plaque can build up quickly on the teeth of seniors, especially if oral hygiene is neglected, and lead to tooth decay and gum disease.
To maintain good oral health, it's important for all individuals -- regardless of age -- to:
- Brush at least twice a day with a fluoride-containing toothpaste
- Floss at least once a day
- Rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash once or twice a day
- Visit your dentist on a regular schedule for cleaning and an oral exam
Antibacterial mouth rinse can reduce bacteria that cause plaque and gum disease, according to the American Dental Association.
What Seniors Can Expect During a Dental Exam
If you're a senior headed for a check up, your dentist should conduct a thorough history and dental exam. Questions asked during a dental history should include:
- The approximate date of your last dental visit and reason for the visit
- If you have noticed any recent changes in your mouth
- If you have noticed any loose or sensitive teeth
- If you have noticed any difficulty tasting, chewing, or swallowing
- If you have any pain, discomfort, sores, or bleeding in your mouth
- If you have noticed any lumps, bumps, or swellings in your mouth
During an oral exam, your dentist will check the following: your face and neck (for skin discoloration, moles, sores); your bite (for any problems in how the teeth come together while opening and closing your mouth); your jaw (for signs of clicking and popping in the temporomandibular joint); your lymph nodes and salivary glands (for any sign of swelling or lumps); your inner cheeks (for infections, ulcers, traumatic injuries); your tongue and other interior surfaces -- floor of the mouth, soft and hard palate, gum tissue (for signs of infection or oral cancer); and your teeth (for decay, condition of fillings, and cracks).
If you wear dentures or other appliances, your dentist will ask a few questions about when you wear your dentures and when you take them out (if removable). They will also look for any irritation or problems in the areas in the mouth that the appliance touches, and examine the denture or appliance itself (looking for any worn or broken areas).
Financial Aid for Seniors' Dental Care
If you are a senior on a limited or fixed income and can't afford regular dental care, many dentists offer their services at reduced fees through dental society-sponsored assistance programs. Since aid varies from one community to another, call your local dental society for information about where you can find the nearest assistance programs and low-cost care locations (such as public health clinics and dental school clinics). Also, check your local phone book, the internet, or your local dental society.