Senior Oral Health: Smiles For A Lifetime

Like the rest of the body, our mouth and likewise our oral health needs change as we get older; and just a few generations ago, oral disease and eventual tooth loss were expected parts of the aging process. Thanks to advancements in medicine over the past fifty years, adults expect to live longer healthier lives… and when seniors and the people who care for them are aware of their unique oral health needs, it is not unrealistic to expect to keep teeth in great shape for a lifetime of smiles!

Normal or not?

Changes in the skin, bones, circulation and immune system that affect the body also affect the mouth; and even the teeth undergo normal changes with age. Do you know what to expect?

A decline in the function of the immune system is a natural part of aging, but it is significant because it makes the body less capable of fighting infection. Everyone has both good and harmful bacteria in their mouth but as a result of the aging immune system, there is a gradual shift toward a greater number of the harmful bacteria which are responsible for gum disease, tooth decay and fungal infections such as yeast or thrush.

  • The Enamel: the outer shell of the tooth is the hardest substance in the body, and it is not replenished over time. Normal wear and tear over the life span causes it to be gradually worn away, which can expose the softer dentin underneath, making teeth more vulnerable to decay. Professional fluoride treatments may be recommended to strengthen the enamel. White fillings protect exposed dentin and cosmetically enhance your appearance… a stronger and more youthful smile is possible!
  • The Dentin: is the yellower, softer layer that underlies the enamel and covers the nerve of the tooth. Dentin is continually produced over the life of the tooth, and over time the tooth will naturally become darker and less sensitive to temperature. Older adults can and do have their teeth whitened with outstanding results. Usually, a cosmetic whitening procedure performed in the dental office is preferable to an over the counter product when the teeth have darkened significantly.
  • The Pulp: is the core of the tooth where the nerve and blood supply are found. The pulp shrinks as we age, making teeth less sensitive overall. Cavities may be much deeper and larger before they are felt. Many people mistakenly believe that dental checkups are less important as we get older but in reality, they are more important than ever!
  • The Bone: that supports the teeth should not change just because we get older. However, a person’s oral hygiene over their life span will directly impact the health of the bone over time. Periodontal (bone and gum) examinations are an important part of a routine dental checkup appointment for everyone. People who have had gum disease should have their bone level monitored more frequently, especially if they have difficulty fighting infections.
  • The Gums: lose collagen and connective tissue with age. Just like the skin of the rest of the body, the gums become thinner, more fragile, more susceptible to injury and infection, and may take longer to heal.

Common problems

Normal physiological changes may leave older adults vulnerable to oral complications… declining eyesight, failing memory and even arthritis may make self-care more challenging and those professional checkups much more critical. Chronic conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and circulatory problems are often associated with aging and these can these have a major impact the health of the mouth as well. Regular checkups can alert your dentist to the possibility of underlying medical conditions that you may not be aware of; and just in case you still need to be convinced, here are some surprising facts about oral health problems commonly experienced by seniors:

  • Among those over 75 years of age, about 50% of have cavities on the roots of their teeth (root caries) and may not be aware of it. Untreated decay can progress into the pulp of the tooth causing pain and serious blood infections, such as septicemia.
  • About 25% of seniors ages 65 to 74 have severe periodontal disease. Research has linked this condition with other serious health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, respiratory illness and pneumonia in institutionalized patients.
  • Oral cancer is diagnosed most frequently in people over age 65. Each year 30,000 new cases of oral and throat cancers are diagnosed and about 8,000 individuals die from these diseases. Early cancers are treatable, but since they are usually painless they often remain undetected until they have reached the later stages. Do you know about your risk factors for oral cancer? There are many… including tobacco and alcohol use, but some oral cancers develop in people with no known risk factors at all. When was the last time you were examined by a dental professional?
  • Dry mouth is a major side effect of over 400 medications, many of which are taken by older adults. Blood pressure medications, cholesterol-lowering drugs, medicines for Alzheimer’s disease and antidepressants are just a few examples. Don’t underestimate the importance of this treatable condition… it contributes to tooth decay, gum disease, denture discomfort and it makes eating and speaking difficult or painful.

No matter what your age, a healthy mouth is important for general health and quality of life… and many older adults are choosing to cosmetically enhance their teeth for a real self esteem boost! Your personal oral health needs might include preventive checkups, fixing or replacing teeth or a brighter and younger looking smile. Whatever the case may be, your dental team has the expertise and the products that will allow you to look your best and love your smile for a lifetime! What types of services would you be most interested in learning more about?

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