Seniors Have Special Dental Needs

Senior citizens are keeping their natural teeth longer and may have more complex dental care considerations than previous generations. With increasing age comes the likelihood that more medications are being taken to manage chronic disease. Therefore, it is especially important for the elderly to inform their dental professionals of any changes or updates in their medical history to ensure safe and effective treatment. In addition to partnering with dental professionals for care, senior citizens should be aware of the following issues that may affect their dental needs.

Prevent Periodontal (Gum) Disease and Stop Tooth Loss

Periodontal disease is a major cause of tooth loss in adults, but it’s preventable and even reversible in its early stages. One reason it is a problem among older adults is because it can progress slowly and painlessly over time and go undetected. Careful oral hygiene and regular dental cleanings help control periodontal disease. Notify your dental professional if you see any of the following warning signs:

  • Bleeding gums during brushing.
  • Gums that have pulled away from the teeth.
  • Loose teeth or teeth moving apart.
  • Change in bite or change in the fit of your partial dentures.
  • Constant bad breath or bad taste.

Don’t Ignore Dry Mouth

Many systemic diseases and the treatments used for them can cause diminished salivary output or dry mouth. The resulting dry mouth condition can lead to dental decay, denture sores, and subsequent speech and eating difficulties that may impair nutrition and social interactions. So for good health as well as better quality of life, address dry mouth as soon as possible.

After a diagnosis of dry mouth is made by your dental professional, a low-sugar diet and topical fluorides or antimicrobial mouthrinses may be ordered to help prevent tooth decay. Artificial saliva, oral moisturizers and lubricants and nighttime use of bedside humidifiers may also be employed. Drinking fluids while eating may also help dry mouth, as may sugar-free chewing gum, candies and mints. Daily denture hygiene should help prevent the onset of oral thrush, which is a fungal infection that can occur as a complication of dry mouth.

Screen for Oral Cancer

Regular dental visits are essential for thorough examinations of the entire mouth, even for those who no longer have their natural teeth. Oral and throat cancer cases in the United States are estimated to exceed 34,000 per year. Oral cancer may appear as white or red changes in the mouth that are sore or painless. As with other cancers, early diagnosis is most important. See your dental professional if a lesion persists in your mouth for more than three weeks. To prevent oral cancer, avoid using tobacco and alcohol, and have regular oral screening exams.

Arrange for Dental Care

Dental professionals recognize that good regular oral health is an important part of seniors’ overall health. When you go to your exam, make the most of it by coming prepared with the following information and items:

  • Your complete medical history with up-to-date information on your health (including any allergies, recent surgeries, illnesses or hospitalizations).
  • Complete names, doses and frequencies of any medications you’re taking (prescription or over-the-counter).
  • Your current physician’s name and dental insurance or Medicaid cards
  • Your dentures or partials.
  • Information about emergency contacts.

Talk with your dental professional if you are anxious about the exam, or if reduced mobility or dexterity have hampered your daily dental hygiene routine. For example, arthritis sufferers may benefit from certain dental products such as a battery-operated toothbrush with large handles.

Seniors planning to enter a nursing home should inquire as to whether the nursing-home staff is trained in basic mouth care, and if mouth care is emphasized at least once a day. Also ask if staff are trained to recognize oral problems, or if on-call dental professionals are available. Family members should play an active role in encouraging the oral health of homebound seniors or those in nursing homes by helping them schedule regular dental visits.

Works Cited

1 “Oral Health and the Aging Population.” R.L. Ettinger. Journal of the American Dental Association. September 2007, vol. 138, no. suppl_1 pp. 5S-6S. Accessed 2010.

2 “Oral Health for Older Americans– Centers for Disease Control and Prevention November 24, 2006. Accessed 2010.

3 “Dry Mouth and Its Effects on the Oral Health of Elderly People.” M.D. Turner and J.A. Ship. Journal of the American Dental Association. September 2007, vol. 138, no. suppl_1 pp. 15S-20S. Accessed 2010.

4 “Oral Longevity: A Healthy Mouth for Life.” American Dental Association with GlaxoSmithKline. Accessed 2010.

5 “Mucosal Lesions in Older Adults.” Journal of the American Dental Association. September 2007, vol 138, no. suppl_1 pp. 41S-46S. Accessed 2010.

6 “Oral Health Topics A-Z: Oral Cancer.” American Dental Association. Accessed 2010.

7 “Oral Health Fact Sheets: Senior Oral Health Care.”Academy of General Dentistry. Accessed 2010.

8 “Nursing Home Oral Health Care.”Academy of General Dentistry, March 30, 2007. Accessed 2010.

9 “How to Keep Your Teeth for a Lifetime.”Academy of General Dentistry, March 30, 2007. Accessed 2010.

Lucy Marie Horton