November 14, 2018

Age and oral health: They’re more connected than you might think!

As we get older, decades of wear and tear on our teeth and gums can take a toll. At the same time, many older adults face difficulties, such as arthritis or memory loss, that can make it more challenging to brush and floss on a regular schedule. Many medications can also cause side effects that impact older adults’ oral health.

As a family caregiver to an older adult, it’s incredibly important to take your aging loved one’s oral health into account! The eyes may be the window to the soul – but it is the mouth that really helps provide a window into a person’s overall health.

In this article, we’re going to discuss some of the common health conditions that may trouble older adults over time. Then, we’ll talk treatment – including why it’s so important to find a dentist who can provide proper oral care to the elderly, with all of the expertise and flexibility that important job requires.

Oral Health Concerns for Seniors

What should you look for as a caregiver taking charge of a loved one’s dental care? Here are some warning signs and questions to ask about your senior loved one:

  • Are they having any swallowing issues?
  • Do they have dentures? If so, are they cleaning them and taking care of them? Do the dentures seem to fit properly? Can they chew with them?
  • Does your loved one have bad breath, perhaps because of food getting trapped?
  • Is there anything loose in their mouth?
  • Any swelling?
  • Do they seem to be avoiding eating with one side of their mouth?
  • Any wincing when eating?
  • Are they avoiding certain foods? For instance, are they refusing hard food? Are they requesting soups or soft foods because they don’t want to tell you there is something wrong with their teeth?

These are all important signs to watch out for! If left untreated, oral health concerns can really add up, and create new difficulties for your loved one. Here are just a few of the serious health conditions that tend to come about in older adults:

1.) Gum Disease

Serious gum disease, also called periodontal disease, is “caused by the bacteria in plaque, which irritate the gums, making them swollen, red and more likely to bleed,” according to the American Dental Association’s (ADA) MouthHealthy website.

Advanced gum disease can lead to abscesses and pockets forming, which can contribute to pain and any number of serious effects for seniors. When left untreated, gum disease can result in tooth loss and serious damage to not just the gums, but also the bones and ligaments in the mouth.

2.) Mouth Cancer

According to a report by the American Cancer Society, brought to our attention by the ADA,  there are about “35,000 cases of mouth, throat and tongue cancer diagnosed each year” – and the average age of most people diagnosed with these cancers is 62. Oral cancer can be incredibly serious, and is often difficult to detect on your own. A dentist, however, will be able to spot the early warning signs of different types of oral cancer, allowing for early detection – which could just save your loved one’s life.

3.) Dry Mouth

Far from just an inconvenience, dry mouth can be a serious medical issue for seniors. This feeling – of there not being enough saliva, or of saliva being too thick or foamy – can cause difficulties in tasting, chewing, swallowing, and speaking, and may significantly increase one’s chances of facing tooth decay and other infections in the mouth. Dry mouth can come about from various causes, including certain diseases. In many cases, seniors are susceptible to dry mouth because of the amount of medications that they take. Many different medicines can cause dry mouth as a side effect.

4.) Tooth Decay and Loss

Seniors are at an increased risk for all sorts of changes to their teeth and jawbones as they get older. Part of this is due to normal wear and tear. Over a lifetime, the enamel on our teeth wears down, exposing the dentin layer and making teeth more susceptible to staining and darkening. Root decay is also common in seniors, as the gum recedes and exposes this important part of the tooth to damaging acids. Finally, seniors could face other difficulties and challenges, including shifting jawbones, fungal growth due to less saliva and/or not taking their dentures out nightly, tooth loss, and chronic inflammation.

5.) Serious Chronic Health Problems

Oral health is about so much more than the mouth. In fact, changes to someone’s gums and teeth could mean changes to their overall physical health. Research has linked poor oral hygiene and health to several different serious chronic health conditions, including heart disease, early onset dementia, pneumonia, and diabetes.

Proper dental care and regular dentist visits can help your loved one get a handle on their oral health – and might just help you spot and treat a serious health condition before it has the chance to blossom into an emergency.  

What Seniors and Caregivers Can Do

So, what can you do to help your loved one maintain good oral health, through all of the changes and challenges that can come up with age?

One of the most important things you can do is to encourage and remind your aging loved one to brush and floss their teeth every day. Remind your loved one to brush twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste, and floss at least once per day. Rinsing with an antibacterial alcohol-free mouthwash can also help promote better oral health when performed as part of a daily oral care routine. Increasing the amount of fluoride in your loved one’s oral care regimen may be important; this can help protect the enamel around the teeth for longer.

If your loved one has difficulty brushing or flossing on their own, you or a professional caregiver may need to assist with these tasks. Electric toothbrushes can also help make it easier to get a deep clean with less effort, as can mouthwashes and other products. A dental professional may be able to recommend a suitable course of action for seniors with more limited mobility.

If your loved one uses full or partial dentures, be sure to look into their proper care and use. For instance, many seniors benefit from removing their dentures for a certain amount of time every day; it’s also important to regularly clean dentures, a step which some people overlook.

Finally, there may be lifestyle changes that can help promote better oral health. Giving up alcohol and tobacco, for instance, can help promote healthier teeth and gums. There are also specialized diets that can help promote better oral health. It may also be worth consulting with your loved one’s doctors to see if it’s possible to switch up their medications, in favor of medicines that do not contribute to dry mouth.

Above all, it’s important to make sure that your elderly loved one is able to regularly see a dentist for cleanings and oral examinations.

The Importance of Regular Dental Care for Seniors

It’s hard to overstate the importance of seeing a dentist for seniors! A dental professional will be able to assess your elderly loved one’s full oral health picture, provide cleaning services, and offer professional guidance on how to best take care of any problems moving forward. A dentist can assist your older loved one with denture inspections, fittings, and realignments; oral cancer screenings; dry mouth diagnosis and treatment; tooth bonding and extraction; and so much more.  

A rule of thumb is to have your senior loved one go in for routine care at least once every six months; some prefer to have a cleaning performed every three months.

Of course, it can be more difficult to get the senior in your life to see a dentist when they’re housebound. In this case, it may help to have the dental professional come to you!

In the northern Chicago area, Joyful Dental Care is one great service that can provide house calls specially tailored to meet the oral health needs of older adults. Led by Dr. Joy Poskozim, DDS, PC, Joyful Dental Care can bring service directly to the senior in your life, providing the care and attention your loved one needs in the comfort of their own home.

For more than 12 years, Joyful Dental Care’s mission has been to focus heavily on a preventative long-term approach, to help keep patients’ natural teeth and gums in top condition and treatment to a minimum. This practice is continually investing in education and innovation, and was named “2010 Corporate Citizen of the Year” by the Lincolnwood Chamber of Commerce. She was also named a “Top Dentist” from the Chicago Tribune in 2012 and Chicago Magazine for 2019.

For seniors, Dr. Joy and her team offer a full range of in-home dental care services. Even better, they are collaborative, and happy to work with caregivers and family. They offer nutritional and physical health consultations with home caregivers, nurses, family members with power of attorney, and so on.

About Companions for Seniors

Do you have a loved one who could benefit from the personalized attention of an in-home caregiver?

Are your curious about everything that goes into helping your older relatives age in place comfortably and safely?

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with Companions for Seniors to talk all things senior care!

At Companions for Seniors, our mission is to help seniors live independently and with dignity at home by empowering them to lead an active and enriched lifestyle, connecting them with their community, and nurturing meaningful relationships.

Our professional companions are trained, bonded, and insured, and can help provide a variety of services designed to help your loved one remain in the comfort of their own home. We’re locally owned in the Chicago area, with clients in the city and suburbs.

Thanks again to Dr. Joy for all of her contributions to this article! If you have any questions about dental care for your aging loved one, be sure to get in touch with Joyful Dental Care using their contact form, available here. You can also connect with Joyful Dental Care on Facebook, here.