With regular dental care and good daily habits, you'll likely have your teeth for a lifetime. As you get older, however, natural changes in both your mouth and general health can put you at risk of dental problems. Knowing the vulnerabilities that come with aging will allow you to effectively manage your oral health care, and prevent these dental complications.
Risks for Tooth and Root Decay
Elderly adults often suffer from dry mouth because of conditions requiring treatment or medications that have side effects. This includes cancer treatment or the use of cardiovascular medications. Regardless of the reason your mouth is dry, saliva helps neutralize the bacteria and acids that can damage your teeth over time.
If you're a senior with gum recession, be aware that exposed root surfaces are softer than tooth enamel, and therefore decay more quickly. Root decay can rapidly reach the nerve portion of your tooth and lead to an infection, or cause the tooth to break off of the root completely in severe cases.
By now, you probably have fillings in your mouth that may be due for replacement. Decay can easily start under broken, chipped or leaky dental fillings, so it's important to keep regular dental visits, even if you're not feeling any pain.
Risks for Gum Disease
According to the Academy of General Dentistry, severe gum disease affects 25 percent of adults between the ages of 65 and 74 years old. If left untreated, this can lead to gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and the more serious periodontitis (inflammation of the bone around your teeth). Diabetics, whose blood sugar levels can make them more prone to infection, are at higher risk for periodontal (gum) disease as well.
If you've had one or two teeth removed through the years, remember: You're never too old to have them replaced. Missing teeth can cause surrounding teeth to drift and create areas around the gumline where food and bacteria collect, making the perfect spot for gum infection to start.
Manage Your Oral Health
Regular checkups with your dentist can keep you one step ahead of potential dental problems. These professional cleanings are needed to remove the plaque and tartar from your teeth that can lead to periodontal disease. While you're at home, brush twice a day with a soft brush. If arthritis limits your ability to do this, ask your dentist about special dental aids that make brushing easier. Interdental cleaners and floss holders are also available if you have difficulty flossing between each tooth every day.
Consider using products that specialize in the conditions you're at higher risk for. Fluoride toothpaste can help strengthen your tooth enamel, and fluoride rinses and gels can also help prevent root decay.
Other Good Habits
The dentist chair and the bathroom aren't the only places where oral care can take place. Attack dry mouth by staying hydrated. Use artificial saliva products and chew sugarless gum. And talk to your dentist about any medications you're taking that could cause dry mouth.
As your doctor may have already advised, eat healthy foods that are low in sugar and high in fiber. The American Dental Association's (ADA) Mouth Healthy site suggests older adults need 1,000 milligrams a day of calcium from low-fat dairy products to prevent osteoporosis, which can affect the bone surrounding your teeth..
Finally, reduce your oral cancer risks. Because oral cancer is common in older adults, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research recommends eliminating tobacco and alcoholic products, staying out of the sun or wearing sunscreen, and having your dentist examine your mouth for signs of oral cancer.
Mark Twain once said, "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." But as you age, good oral health care does matter. By understanding the dental risks that come with aging, you and your dentist can work together to prevent oral health problems so that you can keep your teeth for a lifetime.