By the time we reach our golden years our teeth have had a lifetime of use, so it is only natural for them to show a bit of age. But many seniors experience dental issues that go beyond normal wear and tear. Perhaps other health ailments seem more pressing, or perhaps there is difficulty with the physical acts of brushing and flossing; either way proper dental care often goes on the back burner. Because teeth are so important to our body’s overall health though, it pays to pay attention to proper dental care at all stages of life.
Common dental problems experienced by many seniors include:
Darkened Teeth – Some discoloration over time is inevitable, due to buildup of food and beverage stains. Also, as we age, the outer layer of enamel thins, allowing the yellowish layer of dentin underneath to show through. If your loved one is bothered by the discoloration, it can often be taken care of with a simple whitening procedure at the dentist’s office.
Dry mouth – This is characterized by increased thirst, a feeling of dryness not quenched through normal diet, and bad breath. It is caused by a decreased production of saliva, which is actually a side effect of many medications and certain cancer treatments, so if your loved one is experiencing symptoms it is definitely worth asking their doctor if a medication switch or dosage change could provide relief. In the meantime, over-the-counter mouth moisturizing products, sugar-free hard candy or throat drops, and an increase in water intake can help ease symptoms. Since one of the functions of saliva is to rinse away food particles and bacteria, it is important to treat this condition promptly to avoid tooth decay.
Gum disease – Gum disease is the result of long term plaque and bacteria buildup and not enough attention to dental hygiene. However, it can also be caused or exacerbated by poor fitting dentures and diabetes, which slows the body’s ability to heal. As gum disease progresses, the gums may actually pull away from the teeth, forming pockets which collect more plaque, which in turn can damage the gum tissue below the tooth line. In severe cases, tooth loss may occur. While this all sounds quite alarming, the disease is easily reversible if caught early. Symptoms include gum puffiness and a tendency to bleed easily while brushing and flossing.
Problems with dentures – Dentures may solve many problems for seniors, but they can create their own issues as well. If you notice a senior in your life has trouble eating certain foods, or avoids foods they used to enjoy, question them about the fit of their dentures. It is not at all uncommon for the fit of dentures to change over time.
Many dental problems in seniors can be minimized or avoided with a bit of attention to daily dental hygiene. Seniors should brush with a fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day, and floss at least once a day. If cavities are an issue, an alcohol-free fluoride mouth rinse can help. In some cases, a prescription toothpaste or mouthwash may be necessary, or a dentist can apply a topical fluoride treatment to help protect the teeth between visits. If brushing or flossing is difficult due to mobility issues or arthritis, the dentist can provide tips to make daily hygiene easier, so don’t be afraid to ask. If your loved one wears dentures, they will need to follow daily care routines using a specific toothpaste for denture wearers.
Don’t forget diet; sugary sodas and juices can eat away at enamel. If these are a regular part of the diet, be sure to rinse well with water after sipping. And don’t neglect twice yearly (or more) dental appointments. Your dentist will often be the first to notice any problems and can nip them in the bud before they become real issues.