With age comes many things: wisdom, perspective, and for some, a few health-related issues to manage, including oral health issues. More and more Americans will find themselves in this situation as the population continues to age. In fact, by the year 2030, there will be 72 million adults age 65 or older. That’s nearly 20% of the U.S. population. By comparison, that age group comprised about 10% of the population in the year 2000.
Maybe you’re in this age bracket, or maybe you want to know what to watch for down the road to make sure you enter your golden years with a full set of chompers. Read on to learn how to spot the issues, as well as what you can do to mitigate them.
Common oral health conditions to watch for as you age:
Also known as Xerostomia, dry mouth is estimated to affect 30% of patients 65+, and up to 40% of patients 80+. It’s a problem because saliva helps neutralize bacteria in the mouth, which if left unchecked, can lead to cavities. Some medications that seniors take to manage other health conditions list dry mouth as a side effect, which is why this condition is so prevalent in this age group, but it’s most common among those who take more than four prescription medications daily. It can also result from conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease.
Cavities at the Root
Gums do typically recede with age, which exposes the root. The surface is softer than regular enamel, making the area vulnerable to cavities. Nearly half of all Americans 75 and older have root cavities.
The bacteria and plaque that increase with dry mouth can also lead to gum disease, a condition that often goes relatively unnoticed until some damage is already done. If your gums are swollen and red, or if they bleed when you brush, you may have gum disease. If left untreated, gum disease can erode the gums, bone and surrounding tissues, leading to tooth loss.
Notice a sudden pain when you sip straight from a glass of ice-cold water? Or do you feel your teeth ache after indulging in a sweet treat? Receding gums can also expose tooth roots, which are sensitive to heat, cold, sugary foods, and even brushing.
Cancer of the mouth
According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, oral cancer occurs most frequently in people age 40 and up, disproportionally in men, and accounts for 3% of all U.S. cancers each year. Smoking, alcohol consumption, and smokeless tobacco use are all major risk factors, but so are significant sun exposure and a lack of fruits and vegetables in the diet. If you have difficulty chewing and swallowing or moving your jaw, numbness anywhere in the mouth, sores and patches throughout the mouth, or pain in the ear, any of these could be early warning signs of cancer. Consult your doctor immediately. If caught early, surgery or radiation can treat it successfully.
Tips for taking care of teeth as you age:
To combat the potentially damaging effects of dry mouth, sip water regularly (preferably fluoridated tap water) or chew sugar free gum to keep those mouth juices flowing.
Use a toothbrush with soft bristles. Hard-bristle brushes can wear away enamel and damage your gums.
Brush your teeth twice a day without fail
Floss daily to take care of those gums
Consider using a toothpaste specially formulated for sensitive teeth. This won’t get at the cause of the problem but it will help you better tolerate the symptoms.
See your dentist and your doctor regularly, and discuss all of your medications and conditions with both. When your healthcare professionals are all informed and on the same page, you can get a more holistic treatment plan.
Taking great care of your oral health leading into and throughout your golden years is extremely important for maintaining overall health and comfort as you age.