Health + Wellness

Older Adults Need to Start Placing More Focus on Their Dental Health

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Most of us would rather not think about going to the dentist, regardless of age. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), dental anxiety affects nearly 36% of the population. However, with better understanding of modern dentistry it’s easy to see that this is not only silly, but also comes with negative long-term consequences.

Each age group has specific issues and needs. Older patients, though, should be especially cognizant of their dental health. Geriatric dental care is more than just dentures. The importance of healthy gums and teeth go far beyond the cosmetic realm. In fact, the whole body can be affected by oral health.

Unlike younger people, older adults often use more prescription medications, as ordered by their doctors. Of course, most prescriptions are essential so there is nothing many people can do about this, but the frequency of drug use among people aged 65 and older can cause side effects. Xerostemia, a fancy word for dry mouth, is already more likely in older folks, but it becomes even more likely for those who take four or more different prescriptions each day. Although dry mouth seems like it’s just an annoyance, it can lead to larger problems down the road. For those who suffer from severe xerostemia, complaints range from feeling burning sensation, difficulty swallowing, sore throats, sometimes trouble speaking, hoarseness, and even difficulty swallowing in extreme cases. Lack of saliva also leads to gum disease, plaque, tooth caries, and tooth loss. The good news is that xerostemia can be easily treated, it’s just that many older adults neglect to see a dentist.

If dry mouth becomes severe and leads to gum disease or plaque buildup, it can lead to more severe conditions. Gum disease and plaque buildup, no matter the cause, have long been studied and linked to heart disease. That’s not all though, gum disease may also impact blood glucose control according to diabetes.org, which would exacerbate symptoms for those who currently suffer from diabetes. Or, for those who don’t have diabetes, it could contribute to the onset of diabetes. The risk factors for diabetes and gum disease are actually very similar: smoking, obesity, being sedentary, stress, and diet.

For those suffering from diabetes, gum disease can become more serious and the risk of fatal heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease rises. Even without diabetes or gum disease, in some cases, something as simple as a toothache can lead to major problems. The bacteria from an untreated tooth infection can infect the heart’s inner lining and valves in what is known as bacterial endocarditis. Once bacteria gets into the bloodstream, it can become serious enough to damage heart valves.

With such worrying facts, it is surprising Medicare does not fund oral health for seniors. In the long run, dental prevention would save Medicare many dollars. Since dental care becomes an out of pocket expense many people do not receive the dental care they need. They are either unable to afford it, or do not see dental care as a necessary expense after their workplace insurance benefits have expired with retirement. For those living in old-age centers like assisted living communities or nursing homes, oral health is rarely supplied at all. Although there is a law requiring oral care for nursing home residents, there is no definition as to what constitutes care or neglect, so it is incredibly difficult to enforce.

If you are a senior with a preexisting condition, dentist visits should be scheduled at least twice a year. Since dentists are informed that dental problems can make preexisting conditions worse, dental health can be a first step to finding new issues or keeping old ones in check. The mouth can indicate liver problems, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, arthritis, and more.

Dental health has also been connected to brain health.  With all the evidence pointing towards a two-way street between overall health and dental health, geriatric dental care should take on a whole new significance. If you or a loved one cannot afford dental care, check with your closest university because many offer free or reduced dental work performed by dental residents under supervision of their professors.


Jacob Edward is an eldercare expert for Senior Planning in Phoenix, Arizona. Senior Planning offers a free service designed to help seniors and the disabled find the benefits, care, or long-term care community they need.

Image provided by Senior Planning.

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