7 Important Questions Seniors Ask About Oral Health

October 15, 2018

Cheerful senior couple having fun at the beach and smiling

Healthcare becomes a more significant aspect of life as we get older. Not that it’s not important for younger adults or children, but it’s usually not as much in the forefront of our minds, and giving it the proper attention isn’t as time-consuming or confusing as it can be for older adults.

Oral health, especially, seems to cause confusion and suffer from some common misconceptions for older adults and their caregivers. So, we wanted to discuss seven important questions seniors regularly ask about their oral health.

Why do I need to worry more about oral health now?

While we’ve been taught for years the importance of oral health care for children, that doesn’t mean it’s not important as we get older. In fact, older patients are at a greater risk for many oral health concerns than their younger counterparts, even if they maintain well-established self care habits like brushing and flossing their teeth daily.

That’s because, as we age, a number of circumstances work against good oral health:

  • Use of an increasing number of prescription medications leads to a common side effect: dry mouth (or xerostomia). Dry mouth, in turn, leaves your teeth and gums more susceptible to cavities, infection, and other issues.
  • Loss of bone density — such as what occurs with osteoporosis and similar conditions — can lead to tooth loss or discomfort, which can in turn increase the possibility of infection or overgrowth of bacteria.
  • Many other health conditions have been clinically tied to oral health issues, either as a cause, an effect, or a comorbid condition. These include diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and much more.
  • Arthritis, muscular weakness, and loss of coordination in the hands and fingers can make proper brushing or flossing of teeth difficult for elderly patients, exacerbating all these issues.

I don’t have any of my natural teeth left, why do I need to go to the dentist?

It’s a common misconception that visiting the dentist regularly is only for those with teeth. While your dentist is going to want to preserve your natural teeth if possible, their real concern is with your overall oral health. So, even if you no longer have any of your natural teeth left, a routine visit to the dentist every six months is a good idea.

During this visit, the dentist can check the fit and condition of your dentures, if you have any. Over time, hard and soft tissue changes in your mouth can gradually affect the fit of your dentures, and you may not even realize it’s happening. Over-reliance on denture adhesive may keep the dentures in place, allowing your to speak and eat normally, but underneath the surface, damage is being done, or they are causing unnecessary discomfort.

Your dentist will also take the opportunity to examine your gums, palate, tongue and throat for signs of any issues requiring attention, and perform an oral cancer screening.

What does my oral health have to do with the rest of my health?

Every year, it seems, researchers are finding more proven links between oral health and the health of your entire body. In some cases, these links are causal. For instance,

  • Infections that begin in the gums are easily transferred to other parts of the body, such as the brain or the heart, where they can become much more serious.
  • Poor oral health can lead to malnutrition because chewing and swallowing becomes painful and difficult. Malnutrition, in turn, causes many other systemic problems.

In other cases, health conditions elsewhere in the body have an effect on oral health. Often, this allows dentists to identify and diagnose issues before a patient realizes there’s a problem, and before another doctor would have reason to suspect it. For example,

  • Chronic periodontal (gum) disease and infection despite good oral health self care can be a sign that your immune system is compromised. This is often an early warning sign of diabetes or a similar systemic condition weakening the immune system.
  • Unexplained loosening or loss of teeth is one of the first signs that bone density is lessening, indicating that you may have a vitamin deficiency, osteoporosis, or a similar condition.

And, in some cases, oral health issues are found to commonly occur along with other health concerns despite no direct link having been identified. For instance,

  • Patients diagnosed with cardiovascular disease — still one of the biggest killers in the U.S. every year — often struggle with a higher occurrence of periodontal disease and infection.
  • Patients with poor oral health seem to be more susceptible to various types of cancer, especially as they get older.

My teeth feel fine, so why do I need to visit the dentist every six months?

As noted above, your dentist is concerned with your overall oral health, not just the condition of your teeth. While it’s commendable that your teeth are not causing you pain or discomfort — likely indicating you’re taking great care of them — there are many other potential oral health issues your dentist is going to want to keep an eye out for that have no bearing on how your teeth feel.

One of the best reasons to stick to a semi-annual dentist’s visit is to give your dentist the opportunity to perform a thorough examination, during which they will be able to note any signs of the conditions described in the previous questions. In many cases, the signs a dentist can identify through a visual examination of your mouth will be painless and all but unknown to you. As a result, your six month checkup could be the best chance of an early diagnosis and successful early treatment of a potentially serious condition.

What should I do if arthritis is making brushing and flossing difficult?

Arthritis often has a particular impact on the hands and fingers. The pain and loss of a full range of motion caused by serious arthritis can make it difficult or impossible for some seniors to effectively brush or floss their teeth.

For those who are still able to hold and manipulate a toothbrush, switching to an electric toothbrush may be a good choice. The handles of most electric toothbrushes are somewhat wider, which may allow for a better grip. And, the movement afforded by the spinning or vibrating bristles can effectively clean teeth without needing to move your hand or fingers as much. Increasing the number of times you rinse with mouthwash, or obtaining a stronger prescription mouthwash, can also help fill the gap if brushing has become less effective.

There are a number of appliances available now to make flossing easier in various ways as well. Speak with your dentist or pharmacist and experiment with a few different options before settling on one you can use with your current range of motion and abilities.

If it becomes necessary, allow a caregiver to assist you with brushing and flossing your teeth rather than ignoring these important self-care habits.

My mother (or father) has dementia. Can I bring them to the dentist?

While it certainly can be a challenge to care for a loved one with dementia, many dentists — and other healthcare professionals as well — have special accommodations set up to make such a visit as easy and stress-free as possible. Some practices actually specialize in caring for those with special needs, including older patients who may be confused or easily scared, or who have difficulty communicating effectively.

Your best bet is to contact local dental providers and be frank with them regarding your loved one’s condition. They will know best whether their office is a good choice, and this gives you an opportunity to prepare the office, yourself, and the patient for the most effective appointment.

What are my options if I can’t afford dental care?

For many older Americans, it’s a shock to learn that Medicare doesn’t offer much at all in the way of dental care coverage. Since most retirees are on fixed incomes and don’t have a lot available for discretionary spending, this can become a real problem, especially considering the high out-of-pocket cost of oral health care.

Still, seniors do have a number of options available to them beyond drowning in debt to pay for the dental care they need or ignoring the need for dental care. Among the options that should be explored, consider:

  • Joining a dental discount plan
  • Paying for individual dental insurance coverage
  • Utilizing low- or no-cost dental clinics in your local community
  • Being seen at a dental school
  • Taking advantage of financing and payment options through the dentist’s office

Finally, remember that dentists are also business people who want and need patients if they’re going to continue to operate. So, shop around: most offices are willing to adjust their prices if it means getting your business rather than losing you to the competition. Take advantage of that power.

We create new content regularly, and would love to answer your question in a future article. We also encourage you to look over some of our previous articles discussing senior oral health to see if your question has already been addressed.

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