In the past, television commercials tended to feature denture products as if it were normal for older adults to lose their teeth and need artificial replacements.
Although seniors 65 and older have an average of 9.24 decayed or missing permanent teeth, it is possible to keep your own teeth throughout your life, with proper oral care and regular dental check-ups. Tooth loss is “not a natural part of aging,” says Marsha Pyle, DDS, Associate Dean of Education at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Dental Medicine.
And, though it may surprise you, dental health and your overall health go hand in hand. Poor oral health can lead to serious illness.
How Aging Affects Oral Health
As we age and our bodies change, there are several red flags that may indicate the need for greater attention to oral health care:
- Dry mouth. Known as xerostomia, this condition is a common side effect of many prescription medications — but it can also be a symptom of diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s. A chronically dry mouth not only interferes with masticating food as the first stage of digestion, it’s dangerous to teeth and gums as well, because saliva helps neutralize acids and cleanse the mouth of microorganisms that lead to cavities.
- Irritated or receding gums. While some loss of gum tissue is normal with advancing age (just as skin wrinkles due to a loss of elasticity), receding gums expose more of the root of our teeth, making them more susceptible to infection.
- Memory loss. Someone suffering from cognitive impairment may neglect oral health care.
- Loss of grip strength and dexterity. A senior may be committed to dental care, but be impeded by arthritis or other arm or hand weakness that prevents regular brushing and flossing.
6 Ways Oral Health Impacts the Overall Health of Older Adults
Dental health has far reaching effects on a senior’s life. A periodontal infection may be an independent risk factor for a wide range of conditions and diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, dementia, kidney disease, and some types of cancer.
- Heart disease. A groundbreaking study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 70 percent of those 65 and older have some stage of gum disease. This is a chronic inflammation that affects the gum tissue and bone supporting the teeth. If left untreated, it can lead to tooth loss — and raise the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other vascular events. Though there is not a direct cause and effect relationship, infection and inflammation in your mouth can lead to inflammation in your heart valves and blood vessels.
- Diabetes. Gum disease makes it more difficult for the body to regulate insulin levels. It’s a vicious cycle: excess blood sugar, a result of diabetes, can lead to gum infection; gum infection makes it harder for a diabetic body to use insulin.
- Alzheimer’s. People who have had gum disease for more than a decade are 70 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those without periodontal problems, according to a new study. While it is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, as with diabetes, it is clear that brain health and dental health are closely connected. The researchers conclude: “Our findings support the notion that infectious diseases associated with low-grade inflammation, such as chronic periodontitis, may play a substantial role in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease.”
- Kidney disease. A UK study found that patients with chronic kidney disease and severe gum disease had a higher risk of death than those with kidney disease and healthy gums. The lead researcher said, “The mouth is the doorway to the body, rather than a separate organ, and is the access point for bacteria to enter the bloodstream via the gums.”
- Cancer. Periodontal disease is implicated in various types of cancer, including oral cancer, pancreatic cancer (the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States), lung cancer, esophageal cancer, and upper GI and gastric cancers.
- Pneumonia. Oral bacteria can be inhaled, causing pneumonia. In an elderly person who already has compromised immunity, this can be a very serious complication.
Take Charge of Your Mouth
To improve their dental health and overall health, seniors should care for their teeth and gums by:
- Brushing and flossing after meals.
- Eating a well balanced diet.
- Quitting smoking.
- Visiting the dentist for regular checkups.
- Scheduling a dental cleaning at least twice a year.
If you have dry mouth, keep a glass of water nearby and sip it throughout the day. A sense of thirst also declines with ago, so this will give you the added benefit of preventing dehydration.
It would also be wise to avoid salty foods, alcohol, and caffeine, all of which can dry out your mouth and slow saliva production.
Finding Affordable Dental Care
Dental health care can be expensive and is not covered under Medicare. The Kensington Sierra Madre has a dedicated dental office onsite, staffed by a board certified dentist — but this is a very unique service/amenity for senior living!
Some additional resources for routine dental care include:
- Tooth Wisdom. This non-profit oral health site for older adults enables you to plug your zip code into a map of the U.S. and search for dental schools, dental hygiene programs, dental clinics, and federally qualified health centers in your area.
- Eldercare Locator. This government site similarly allows you to access a range of eldercare services by zip code, from health to housing, transportation to insurance, elder rights to in-home support.
- Dental Lifeline Network. A non-profit serving those 65+ for almost half a century, Dental Lifeline provides access to comprehensive dental services for people with disabilities, or who are elderly or medically at-risk. Its flagship program, Donated Dental Services, has a nationwide network of 17,000 volunteer dentists and 3700 dental laboratories, all offering dental treatment at no charge.
- PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly). This Medicaid program provides comprehensive medical and social services to certain frail, community-dwelling elderly individuals. Healthcare needs can include dentistry.
At The Kensington, helping you age in place in good health is the cornerstone of our service commitment, and this includes a healthy diet and premium health care. Stop by soon and let us show you why our residents love living at The Kensington!