If you’re over the age of 65, or if you’re helping care for a loved one who’s reached that age, health concerns of one form or another are likely consuming a portion of your thoughts and energy. It can be challenging to face health issues over time, but it’s also encouraging and exciting when we consider how far modern medicine has come in both identifying and treating ailments that are common as we age.
One of the key responsibilities any senior or caregiver has to maintain their health is to stay vigilant by not ignoring any potential opportunities for early diagnosis and effective treatment.
With that in mind, we urge all seniors to place a high priority on maintaining your semiannual visit to the dentist for a professional cleaning and examination. Additionally, if you notice any sort of unexplained symptoms in or around your mouth, don’t hesitate to make an appointment as soon as possible and allow your dentist to examine the situation.
This isn’t just of importance to seniors’ oral health, but to your overall health at every age.
Systemic health conditions your dentist can diagnose
All of the following serious health conditions — especially common in the elderly — can often be diagnosed by a dentist during a general oral examination. And, in some cases, the dentist’s diagnosis may be possible weeks or months before symptoms become obvious enough to prompt a visit to the doctor.
1. Heart disease and stroke
A bacterial infection can be deadly when it affects the heart and blood vessels. Unsurprisingly, your mouth is one of the top sources of bacteria in your body. That’s why numerous studies have linked gum disease with increased risk of heart attacks and coronary artery disease.
2. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
"One of the key responsibilities any senior or caregiver has to maintain their health is to stay vigilant by not ignoring any potential opportunities for early diagnosis and effective treatment."
Some studies suggest that people with poor oral hygiene experience a greater risk of developing dementia, although doctors admit the connection is not fully understood. However, one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia include forgetting simple daily routines that have always been second nature in the past, like brushing your teeth. If an aging pereson with historically good oral hygiene suddenly begins neglecting it, they may be forgetting.
Periodontal disease is one of the most common and dangerous oral health concerns that can be caused by prolonged high blood sugar. Additionally, loose teeth, inflamed gums, and intraoral bleeding can indicate an undiagnosed case of diabetes. If you or your dentist notice these symptoms and they have no other explanation, it’s not a matter to take lightly.
This disease, common among older women, results in a loss of bone density. And, while it doesn’t weaken the teeth directly, it can affect the jaw bones. Since your teeth are always stressed by chewing, even slight loss of bone density may cause symptoms the dentist will notice, including teeth loosening and gum lines receding.
5. Eating disorders and GERD
While the focus is usually on adolescents and young adults when the subject of eating disorders is discussed, the fact is that eating disorders know no age parameters. In fact, the nonprofit organization Eating Disorder Hope noted that “78 percent of deaths due to anorexia occur among the elderly” in the United States. Other digestive issues can likewise be diagnosed orally. This is because of the negative impact of frequent vomiting or stomach acid leakage, as well as the impact of severe malnutrition that these conditions produce.
6. Dry mouth (xerostomia)
Chronic dry mouth is very common, especially among seniors, because it is a prevalent side effect of many prescription drugs. However, it would be dangerous to simply ignore dry mouth as a minor inconvenience. It’s also a symptom of some serious health conditions, including Parkinson’s disease.
7. Tooth grinding (bruxism)
The tendency to grind one’s teeth, especially overnight, is certainly not limited to seniors. However, the root cause of bruxism is usually too much stress. Undue stress places chronic strain on numerous body systems, especially the heart, lungs, and brain. And, in all these cases, older people are more likely to already be dealing with one or more conditions that leave these them more vulnerable to stress-related illnesses than a younger person.
How to prioritize dental care for seniors on a fixed budget
As you can see, there is ample reason to prioritize your regular visits to the dentist.
Unfortunately, the main reason many seniors don’t do so is not because they don’t care or don’t realize it’s important. Rather, regular dental care gets neglected because of cost.
Medicare does not cover general, routine dental care, and the cost of private dental insurance is often out of reach of seniors on fixed incomes. That leaves seniors paying out of pocket for dental care, which can be very costly. And, let’s be honest: if your teeth aren’t bothering you, there are plenty of other seemingly more important things you could be spending your money on.
Please know that there are ways to make senior dental care more affordable. Explore options offered locally through the government and/or local dental clinics. Don’t be afraid to shop around for the best value among local dental professionals. And be sure to take advantage of a dental discount program, which can dramatically reduce your out-of-pocket cost for general and advanced dental services for a low monthly membership fee.
Even when facing financial limitations, seniors can put routine dental care on the priority level it deserves as a key factor in continued health and wellbeing.