Many people associate dental cavities with children, especially those who have a "sweet tooth" and need encouragement to brush teeth as often as they should. It may surprise you to know that recent studies have found that senior citizens have a much higher rate of cavities than children. The reasons for this finding are that many seniors are: keeping their teeth longer, and have some degree of gum recession; drink filtered or bottled water or take medications that reduce the flow of protective saliva; and have less manual dexterity or other conditions that affect the ability to adequately clean their teeth.
Fortunately, many of today's seniors have some, if not all, of their teeth. This is largely due to the fact that modern dentistry promotes saving teeth with either root canal or gum treatment instead pulling teeth as was often advocated in the past. Due to the high prevalence of at least some form of gum disease, most seniors have varying degrees of exposure of the tooth roots caused by gum recession. These exposed roots are composed of a dental tissue called cementum (on the outer surface) that is considerably weaker than the enamel that covers the teeth above a healthy gum line. These exposed roots are prime targets for cavity-forming acids.
Many seniors drink water that is either bottled or filtered, which may lack fluoride. While these "purified" water sources may have other health advantages, the fact that they usually lack fluoride is a major disadvantage when fighting cavities. Fluoride protects teeth by re-mineralizing teeth when a cavity starts, and in some cases, fluoride can reverse the progression of an early cavity.
Certain medications taken by seniors can reduce the flow of saliva, which may increase the incidence of cavities. Saliva is important in fighting cavities because it rinses away plaque and food debris, and helps neutralize cavity-forming acids. Medications such as Valium® (for anxiety), Elavil® and Prozac® (for depression), Minipress® and Lasix® (for hypertension and other cardiovascular disorders), Demerol® (for pain) and a host of other medications are associated with dry mouth and reduced salivary flow.
Seniors may have medical conditions that reduce their manual dexterity, and, subsequently, have a negative impact on their oral hygiene. Common ailments that affect oral hygiene include arthritis, stroke, Parkinson's disease, poor vision and many others. The inability to remove food debris with thorough brushing teeth and flossing greatly increases the likelihood of developing cavities.
Seniors can reduce the possibility of getting cavities by using fluoridated tap water instead of bottled water, and their dentist can also apply concentrated fluoride in the office, or have customized trays made to deliver a potent level of fluoride to be used by seniors while at home. Seniors taking medications that cause dry mouth can consider chewing sugarless gum or have their dentist prescribe artificial saliva and mouth moisturizers to improve mouth comfort, as well as help wash away damaging plaque and food debris. Seniors who have limited manual dexterity are encouraged to purchase electric toothbrushes or have a spouse or other caregiver assist them with oral hygiene procedures. Seniors prone to cavities should use fluoridated toothpaste, mouth rinse daily and visit the dentist at least twice a year to have existing cavities treated and teeth professionally cleaned.
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