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Keeping the aging mouth healthy

Working to keep a healthy mouth is more important than ever for older adults, since most people ages 55 to 64 are keeping some or all of their natural teeth.

Baby boomers need to be aware of special conditions that can affect their teeth and gums, from how medications can affect oral and overall health to how untreated gum disease can lead to tooth loss.

Older teeth are still susceptible to decay, so it's vital to continue a thorough oral hygiene program that includes twice daily brushing and flossing, regular cleanings and exams. Mature teeth are more prone to decay around older fillings and at the gum line (root caries). Fluoride in toothpastes, mouth rinses and many communities' water supplies are still important tools for reducing the risk for cavities.

The risk for tooth decay also increases in people with dry mouth (xerostomia) that can be caused by medications or radiation therapy to the head and neck. A dentist or physician can suggest a variety of strategies that can help patients with dry mouth.

Untreated gum (periodontal) disease may progress slowly and cause little or no pain, but undetected can damage the gums and supporting jawbone, leading to receding gums and loose teeth and tooth loss. Lack of dental hygiene, tobacco use, poor diet choices and medical conditions can also make periodontal disease more severe. Cases of tender or swollen gums, receding gums, loose teeth, bite changes or changes in the way dentures fit, bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth can be warning signs that need to be evaluated by a dentist. Periodontal disease may also be linked to health issues like diabetes, heart disease, stroke and respiratory problems, so it's important for overall health to have a healthy mouth.

Those who smoke or use smokeless tobacco have an increasing risk for developing oral cancer as they age. In its early stages, oral cancer may be difficult to detect, so quitting tobacco and getting regular oral cancer screenings are important in protecting oral and overall health.

Older adults don't necessarily have to give up having a beautiful smile as they age. There are many cosmetic dental treatments that are appropriate for mature teeth, and dental implants and dentures can be both functional and aesthetically pleasing for those who experience tooth loss.

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