Oral Health Changes in Older Adults

***UPDATED: July 20, 2015*** According to a recent article from the American Dental Association, the United States Senate unanimously approved legislation that would authorize oral health screenings for seniors under the Older Americans Act. “For the first time since the bill’s enactment in 1965, oral health is specifically referenced in the OAA,” the Association said. The new provision allows state aging agencies to use money designated for disease prevention and health promotion activities to complete oral health screenings. “Oral health screenings are an important component of more comprehensive preventive and restorative care necessary to improve and even save lives while reducing long-term health care costs.” The Older Americans Act provides funding to 56 state and 629 area agencies on aging, and supports a wide range of social and nutritional services and programs for nearly 12 million U.S. seniors. The Senate-passed legislation would amend the OAA definition of disease prevention and health promotion to include oral health, making it a part of routine health screenings for seniors.

Did you know that February is National Children’s Dental Health Month? The American Dental Association sponsors the campaign which is meant to raise awareness about the importance of oral health and in developing good habits at an early age. Considering that nearly 1 in 4 kids experience some form of tooth decay by the age of five, this initiative is awesome in its goals. But adults get cavities too, and some dental experts say the risk can even rise as we age. “It’s as much a problem in seniors as it is in kids,” claims Judith Jones, a professor of general dentistry, health policy and health services research at Boston University. According to a recent USA Today article, the threat in aging adults is actually more persistent nowadays, considering more people are keeping their natural teeth. It wasn’t that long ago, 50 years or so, that more than half of people over 65 in the US had lost all their teeth and needed dentures. That number is now near 15%, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But just because people are able to keep their natural teeth doesn’t mean that they’re healthy, with more than 20% of people over 65 having untreated cavities.

Cavities, or dental caries, are the holes resulting from the removal of plaque and tartar that build up over time. They can cause pain, infection, and if left untreated, eventually tooth loss. And surprisingly, they can come as quite a shock to some aging adults. Many individuals who do not experience excessive amounts of decay in their younger years might find themselves with cavities later in life. These are some of the factors that might be contributing to this oral health deterioration:

  • Diet: If you consume excessive amounts of sugar, whether you’re a child or grown adult, bacteria in your mouth produce acid. This acid can break down the enamel on teeth, which allows for decay. Consuming acidic foods, like citrus fruits, can have the same effect.
  • Dry mouth: A common side effect to more than 500 medications, many of which are taken by older adults, is dry mouth. Saliva has a cleansing effect, and without it, particles are left to cause damage to teeth.
  • Recessed gums: Without the protection of healthy gums, decay has a much easier time reaching  tooth roots.
  • Delayed care: A lot of older Americans lose their dental benefits when they retire, and therefore stop going to the dentist. It doesn’t help that dental care is not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, in certain states.
  • Cognitive and health challenges: Individuals suffering from dementia may forget to brush, or simply don’t care about it anymore. Other physical conditions, like loss of dexterity, can also make it difficult to reach the back teeth, resulting in poor oral hygiene.

Cavity prevention includes brushing your teeth twice a day, for at least two minutes, flossing regularly, and visiting the dentist twice a year for professional cleanings and exams. Additionally, overall and oral health will benefit from eating and drinking a healthy diet. This includes limiting sugary beverages and foods, avoiding sticky foods, cutting back on acidic foods, increasing calcium intake, and drinking plenty of water. Cavity-causing bacteria don’t care about how many candles are on your birthday cake, and will cause oral problems in any mouth that isn’t practicing a good oral hygiene routine.

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