By Lamar Morgan, DMD
It is a common myth that senior adults are destined to lose their teeth. There is no reason seniors cannot keep their teeth for a lifetime since tooth loss is simply the result of an oral disease — not the aging process.
The current elderly population makes up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. The members of this generation are healthier and have kept more of their natural teeth than prior generations. However, there is still room for improvement. Many seniors do not visit a dentist even once a year — one of the key preventive strategies in ensuring that teeth last a lifetime.
Seniors adults often take long absences from seeing the dentist. Sometimes they stop caring as much because they are not out in the public very much, and they think oral hygiene does not matter. In fact, it is even more important, since three out of four adults over age 35 are affected by some sort of gum disease. Family members should encourage their senior loved ones to seek dental care and assist those who need help in doing so. Seniors planning to enter a nursing home should inquire about on-site dental care.
Regular dental visits are especially important for older people since many suffer from dry mouth, which slows down the flow of saliva. Saliva plays a major role in preventing tooth decay by rinsing away food particles and neutralizing harmful acids. Dry mouth often comes with the aging process, but can also be caused by medications like antihistamines, decongestants, antidepressants, and diuretics. Be sure to tell your dentist about any change in medications. Dry mouth can be treated in a variety of ways. Over-the-counter toothpaste, mouth rinses, and sugar-free chewing gums can be very helpful. Your dentist may also wish to give a prescription or consult with your physician concerning medications.
Along with regular dental visits, senior adults should floss daily and brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. They should also ask their dentist about fluoride rinses and gels since studies show that seniors who brush regularly with fluoride toothpaste or use a fluoride rinse or gel regularly have fewer cavities. They are most likely to get cavities where old fillings have chipped or where root surfaces are left unprotected by receding gums.
Other suggestions for keeping teeth for a lifetime: snack in moderation, avoid snacks with sugars and starches and alert your dentist to any changes in medication. Following these preventive measures should help prevent seniors from having to wear dentures. However, even seniors with no teeth still need to visit the dentist regularly, since many aspects of oral health, such as adjusting ill-fitting dentures and oral cancer screenings can be handled at routine dental visits.
Whatever your age, the best way to maintain oral health is to brush and floss regularly and see your dentist twice a year.
About the author: Dr. A. Lamar Morgan graduated in 1975 with a Bachelors in Science in biology from the University of Louisville. He went on to earn his dental degree from the University of Louisville College of Dentistry in 1979. After serving a total of eight years in the US Army, he moved to Perry, Florida, to practice dentistry and raise his family. Dr. Lamar has received his fellowship in the Academy of General Dentistry and is currently a member of the American Dental Association, Florida Dental Association, Northwest District Dental Association, and Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.