How Does Aging Affect Oral Health?
Research projects that by the year 2030, twenty percent of the U.S. population will be over the age of 65. This rapid growth results from advances in healthcare, which allows people to live much longer than in previous generations. Advances in dental care result in more of these elderly people keeping their natural teeth much later in life.
It is important to understand the value of oral health in an aging population and the changes necessary to protect oral health in aging individuals.
What Factors of Aging Affect Oral Health?
As we age, certain bodily functions naturally decrease. There are other important bodily functions that are affected by the prevalence of systemic diseases or health conditions and the medications necessary to treat them.
This list includes the most common links between aging and oral health.
The body naturally produces less saliva as we age. This problem is often compounded by prescription medications that cause dry mouth as a side effect. Because our aging population takes more medications, the risk for dry mouth in elderly people is extremely high.
Saliva performs several very important functions, including protection of the mouth against cavities, gum disease, and mouth sores. When saliva is decreased, the risk for all of these problems increases exponentially.
Elderly patients with dry mouth are at a high risk for cavities, especially on the roots of the teeth. They are more likely to experience progressive gum disease, and they have a greater chance of suffering from painful ulcers and mouth sores.
Multiple Health Concerns
Aging patients typically have one or more systemic health concerns, like high blood pressure, arthritis and diabetes. These conditions all affect the body’s ability to fight infection, function normally and heal completely. This means oral health problems like cavities and gum disease can be more destructive in the presence of these diseases.
Arthritis affects oral health in two separate ways. 1) Arthritis can affect the jaw joints, making chewing difficult or painful. 2) Arthritis in the hands makes maneuvering a toothbrush and floss much more difficult and less effective in cleaning the teeth.
Decreased Manual Dexterity
Aging can affect one’s ability to brush and floss teeth effectively. Patients may have trouble opening wide enough to clean their teeth properly. Using a manual toothbrush or flosser becomes increasingly frustrating as hands become less flexible or shaky.
Decreased Cognitive Function
Many elderly people suffer from conditions affecting their mental abilities, like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Patients without cognitive diseases can also suffer from forgetfulness, which leads to lack of proper self-care.
This contributes to poor oral hygiene and home care of the teeth and gums. As the risk for dental disease goes up and home care goes down, elderly people are very likely to suffer problems with their oral health.
Why is Oral Health So Important to Aging Adults?
Chewing is the first step in the digestive process. Elderly patients are more likely to be missing teeth and have a dry mouth. Missing teeth reduce a person’s ability to properly chew his food. This carries an increased risk for choking and decreased digestion of food.
A dry mouth, or lack of saliva, also affects the digestive process because saliva contains important enzymes for breaking down food particles. Without them, food is not broken down the way it should be.
These interruptions in the digestive process affect the way the body absorbs nutrients from food.
Enjoying a nice meal is one of the greatest pleasures in life. Being able to smile, laugh and speak well improve one’s quality of life.
When oral health is affected, there is no question that the quality of life is decreased. Everyone deserves to eat, speak, and smile comfortably into their old age!
How Can You Protect an Aging Loved One’s Oral Health?
- Monitor or assist in oral hygiene. At a certain point in life, your elderly parents or loved ones may need help cleaning their teeth properly. If they live with you, check on them regularly. If they live in a nursing facility, check with their caregivers to make sure someone is keeping up with oral hygiene.
- Maintain consistent dental visits. It is easy to forget about routine dental visits when patients have many other health concerns. Make it a priority to have regular check-ups with their dentist. Many nursing facilities have dentists who do on-site dental care.
- Proceed with any recommended preventive dental care. There are many prescription dental materials available today which can help fight cavities and reduce the risk of decay and gum disease. These preventive options are wonderful for elderly patients who may not be able to tolerate extensive dental treatment.
Do You Have an Aging Loved One in Need of Dental Care?
Please call us today at 940-382-1750 to schedule a consultation with Dr. Chowning. He will advise you on how to best care for your loved ones and keep their oral health in the best possible shape!