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18 November 2023

Aging and Oral Health: Common Dental Issues in the Elderly

Taking the best care possible of teeth and gums is of the utmost importance at any age but probably even more so for the elderly. This is because seniors are more susceptible to medical conditions like arthritis — which can make brushing and flossing difficult if not almost impossible for some. 

The aging process also means the body is more susceptible to illness and infections as the immune system slowly weakens. Another problem for seniors is the likelihood of being on prescription medications which can adversely impact on dental health.

Issues Associated with Aging

Some elderly people can go through life with very few oral issues. For the vast majority, there are a range of issues that are likely to manifest themselves including:

Discoloration. Changes in the composition of the dentin beneath tooth enamel can cause darkening and discoloration. This can also be caused by the layer of enamel thinning over the years or by many years of tobacco, coffee, red wine and other stain-causing substances.

Dry Mouth. A reduction in the amount of saliva produced (often associated with medications) in later years can cause dry mouth.

Root Decay. Constant exposure to stomach acids over the years can lead to receded gums which expose the roots of the teeth to bacteria and possible decay.

Jawbone Issues. Failure to replace lost teeth or the use of poorly-fitting dentures can cause teeth to shift out of position and lead to misalignment of the jawbone.

Oral Thrush. Diseases affecting the elderly and the use of prescription medications can cause the growth of a fungus called candida albicans which can lead to a condition called oral candidiasis or oral thrush.

Stomatitis. This is an inflammation that can affect the cheeks, gums, tongue and inner lips which is common among seniors who wear poor-fitting dentures or do not have proper oral hygiene.

One of the most prevalent issues for the elderly is gum disease or gingivitis. There is a range of causes for the condition including the use of tobacco, poorly-fitting dentures, and a bad diet among others. 

However, the risk of developing gum disease is higher for the elderly as they are more likely to suffer from medical conditions such as diabetes, anemia (reduced level of red blood cells) and cancers. Untreated gum disease can also lead to tooth loss and other associated problems with the gums and jaw.

Oral Hygiene is Crucial

Good oral hygiene is crucial in avoiding issues in later life. Seniors who have maintained a good dental health regimen throughout life and retained as many natural teeth as possible are less likely to experience serious issues despite the advancing years.

A good dental health regimen should begin in the early years of life, but it is never too late to change bad habits. Probably the biggest single contributor to decay is the build-up of plaque and harmful bacteria.

Keeping plaque under control is best done by:

  • Brushing twice daily using a fluoride-based toothpaste
  • Flossing properly once every day
  • Rinsing the mouth using antiseptic mouthwash once (if not twice) a day
  • Visiting the dentist regularly for proper cleaning and check-ups
  • Rinsing the mouth with water about an hour after eating also helps to remove food particles and debris that may be stuck to (or between) the teeth and using an antibacterial mouth wash occasionally will also reduce the levels of harmful bacteria.

Oral Checks

Dentists are well aware that seniors are more prone to dental issues and many offer oral checks specifically for them. Unlike a regular check-up, an oral check will delve into a patient’s recent history in order to discover whether the oral issues may have an underlying medical cause.

An oral check will cover many dental and other topics such as:

  • Date of (and reason for) last examination
  • Any noticeable changes to the mouth, tongue and lips
  • Recent onset of tooth sensitivity or loosening
  • Difficulty in chewing or swallowing
  • Loss of, or change in, sense of taste
  • Pains, sores or bleeding in the mouth
  • Lumps or swelling in the mouth, throat or neck

During an oral exam the dentist will also conduct brief checks for other possible issues that a standard check-up may catch. These checks include:

  • Any discoloration, new moles or sores on the face and neck
  • Jaw movement and alignment
  • Lymph nodes
  • Salivary glands
  • Tongue, hard and soft palate
  • Gum tissue

Naturally, an oral examination will also include an extensive check of the teeth as well as any fillings or dentures, bridges, veneers or implants that may be present.

The answers to these questions, and the results of checks carried out, will help the dentist determine whether any difficulties being experienced are merely a temporary dental issue or if there may be a physical ailment at the root of the problem. 

Should this be the case, then a referral to a doctor for medical examination will ensure any problem is detected as early as possible and remedial action swiftly taken.

Never Too Late

The aging process inevitably takes its toll but this does not mean that oral issues should simply be accepted as being normal. Good oral hygiene is vital for avoiding many oral problems and although this should be done throughout life it is never too late to begin. 

Following a simple routine taking less than ten minutes a day can greatly improve the condition of not just the teeth but also the gums, tongue and throat. 

Although some oral issues will undoubtedly arise for seniors these can be significantly reduced in frequency and severity by following a good dental health regimen.

As the old adage goes “prevention is better than cure” and this is very true when it comes to avoiding unnecessary treatment!

 

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