Taking care of one’s teeth and gums is as important for senior citizens as it is for youngsters — if not more so. After all, the state of an elderly person’s oral health can have a significant influence on their quality of life: how comfortably he or she can eat, speak, and smile. Poor oral health can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Untreated gum disease can worsen chronic health conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. At the same time, maintaining oral health as we age presents its own special challenges. Here are some things to watch out for as you get older.
It is not inevitable that we must lose our teeth in old age: if properly cared for, our teeth should last as long as we do! However, maintaining effective oral hygiene can get harder in our later years. Arthritis can make brushing and flossing difficult. Sometimes, using an electric toothbrush, with its larger handle, is easier. Or, you can place a tennis ball or bike handle grip on a regular toothbrush to make it more comfortable to hold. Pre-loaded floss holders and water irrigation devices (water flossers), sold in drugstores, can likewise be very helpful for maintaining your oral health.
Xerostomia or having a dry mouth resulting from reduced or absent saliva flow sets the stage and increases the risk for tooth decay and becomes a real problem with aging. As we age, we don’t produce as much saliva. In addition, many prescription and over-the-counter drugs tend to dry out the mouth. Not only is this uncomfortable, but it can also harm the teeth, which benefit from the natural antibacterial and acid-neutralizing properties of saliva. Mouth dryness contributes to the weakening of teeth. Older Americans are taking more medications than ever, so we are seeing more tooth decay from the side effects of a dry mouth. By merely becoming aware of this condition and reporting it to the dentist, you will do a lot to help reverse the decay process.
Your dentist may be the first to notice gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as acid reflux, a disease that tends to worsen as you age. If you have this condition, a look in your mouth will usually reveal erosion on your back teeth. This is the result of powerful stomach acid dissolving your enamel. If you experience reflux episodes during the day, protect your teeth by rinsing vigorously with water to reduce acid in your mouth. You may be tempted, but don’t brush your teeth right away — the bristles can damage enamel still soft from the acid. To prevent nighttime reflux, make sure not to eat two to three hours before bed, and avoid triggers like alcohol, caffeine and anything acidic.
As with many cancers, the risk of developing an oral cavity cancer increases with age and tobacco use. The vast majority of people who get a mouth-related cancer are tobacco users, and the likelihood of developing oral cancer rises with each year a person smokes or chews tobacco. The lip is the most common site for oral cavity cancer, followed by the tongue. Most lip cancer tumors grow on the lower lip, and men are much more likely to be affected than women. The initial signs of oral cancer are often subtle and easily missed. You should see an oral specialist if you notice a white or red patch that lasts longer than two weeks, especially if it’s on your lip, your tongue, or the bottom of the mouth. It is important to always be monitoring your mouth and checking with doctors if you suspect anything.
Those wearing removable dentures and partial dentures should have the appliances regularly checked for fit. Appliances that press on the tissues of the mouth may cause bone and gum changes known as “resorption” in which tissues shrink. Once there is bone loss, the dentures become less stable and can actually increase the bone loss by exerting too much pressure. The dentures can be adjusted to help with the stability of the appliances and reduce premature bone loss. It’s important to be careful of any gaps between the dentures and the tissues of the mouth, because bacteria can get into that gap and cause further damage.
Do you have any questions about aging and your teeth? Call Westermeier Martin Dental care to schedule an appointment with your dentist 716-508-4547.