Aging and oral health
Proper oral care can keep you smiling well into retirement. Contrary to common belief, tooth loss is primarily the result of preventable oral disease and not a result of the aging process. Taking care of your teeth can help them last a lifetime.
Promoting healthy aging
As you age, your dental needs become increasingly specialized, making regular visits to the dentist even more essential. Some common problems to watch for are:
- Gum (periodontal) disease. Most people don’t realize how important it is to take care of their gums as well as their teeth. Gum disease is an infection of the gum tissue that supports the teeth and is the leading cause of tooth loss in adults. Most adults show some signs of gum disease. Gum disease has two stages:
- Gingivitis. Gingivitis is an early stage of gum disease that is reversible with good oral hygiene and professional treatment. Gingivitis is caused by the bacteria found in plaque. Symptoms of gingivitis include red, swollen gums and possible bleeding when you brush. If you have any of these symptoms, see a dentist at once. If left untreated, gingivitis can advance into periodontitis.
- Periodontitis. Periodontitis, a more severe form of gum disease, affects more than half of 65- to 74-year-olds. With this condition, bacterial infection causes your gums and the bone supporting the teeth to break down. Your gums may begin to recede, pulling back from the teeth. In the worst cases, the bone supporting the teeth is destroyed and, if untreated, can lead to tooth loss.
- Root caries (decay). As we age, gums may recede due to the damage caused by brushing too hard or gum disease. Receding gums cause the exposure of the root surfaces of teeth. Root surfaces are softer and more porous and therefore more susceptible to decay than the tooth crown.
- Oral cancer. Oral cancer most often occurs in people over 40 years of age. See a dentist immediately if you notice any red or white patches on your gums, tongue or other oral tissues, and watch for sores that fail to heal within two weeks. Unfortunately, oral cancer is often difficult to detect in its early stages, when it can be cured more easily. Your dentist should perform a head and neck exam to screen for signs of cancer at your regular checkups.
- Dry mouth. Taking prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause changes to the oral tissues. Many common medications cause a decrease in saliva, leading to dry mouth. Since saliva plays a major role in preventing tooth decay by rinsing away bacteria and food particles and by neutralizing harmful acids, you should talk to your dentist about ways to treat dry mouth.
- Difficulty brushing and flossing. If you have arthritis, you may find it difficult to brush and floss. Ask your dentist for ways to overcome this problem. Certain dental products are designed to make oral care more comfortable. You may want to try strapping the toothbrush to a larger object, such as a ball, to make the brush more comfortable to handle. Electric toothbrushes do a good job of removing plaque and can help by doing some of the work for you. Tools to help make flossing easier are available in most drug stores.
- Limited dentist access. If you have difficulty accessing dental services because of transportation, medical conditions or limited mobility, ask a family member to help schedule regular dental visits and provide transportation. If you are planning to enter a senior community or assisted living facility, inquire about the facility's dental care services so you can plan accordingly for future care.
Maintaining your overall health
Regular dentist visits can do more than keep your teeth healthy — they can tell a dentist a lot about your overall health. Good oral health is essential to good overall health and high quality of life. The best way to achieve good oral health is to prevent disease through daily brushing and flossing and visiting your dentist regularly.
The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.