The most common chronic disease during childhood is exactly the same in people ages 65 and older: tooth decay. Nine in 10 people 65 or older have cavities, and 25 percent of those people have decay that has yet to be treated. In fact, 25 percent of people 65 or older haven’t even visited the dentist in the past five years.
Keeping regular dentist appointments is an important part of having good oral health well into your golden years. Even seniors with dentures or tooth implants should continue to visit the dentist for regular cleanings and consultations. Checkups also allow the dentist to keep an eye out for signs of dry mouth, gum disease and oral cancer.
Another thing that hasn’t changed since you were using a step-stool to reach the sink: good brushing and flossing habits. Seniors should continue to brush twice daily with fluoride toothpaste and floss once a day.
Despite having many of the same oral health concerns they’ve always had, there are definitely some new ones that come with getting older. For instance, some of the illnesses seniors commonly come down with and some medications they take often produce dry mouth as a side effect. Dry mouth can lead to dental decay, denture sores and eating difficulties, so it’s important to address the situation instead of assuming that dry mouth is just a normal part of aging. Drinking plenty of fluids, chewing sugar-free gum and using a humidifier at night may help. Here’s where staying current with dentist appointments can also come in handy – after a discussion of what could be causing the problem, dentists may be able to recommend treatments or an over-the-counter artificial saliva replacement.
In addition to dry mouth, seniors should also keep a close eye out for periodontal (gum) disease, which can progress slowly and painlessly over time. Although it’s a major cause of tooth loss in adults, it’s preventable and even reversible in its early stages, so being able to spot the signs is essential. Symptoms include bleeding gums during brushing, loose teeth or teeth moving a part, change in bite or in the fit of partial dentures, or constant bad breath or bad taste in the mouth. If you identify these signs in yourself or in an elderly loved one, consult the dentist right away.
If you’re a senior planning to enter a nursing home or you have a loved one making the move, ask each potential new home if their staff is trained in basic mouth care and if mouth care is emphasized at least once a day. Find out if staff is trained to recognize oral problems or if on-call dental professionals are available.