Just 60 years ago, it was an assumption that as we age we would lose our natural teeth. But, that's not the case for today's older adults who are keeping their natural teeth longer than ever before. A healthy mouth and teeth help you look good, eat delicious and nutritious foods, and speak clearly and confidently. Being mouth healthy is essential for good quality of life.
Your mouth is the gateway to your body
Maintaining good oral health habits now is especially important because unhealthy bacteria in the mouth not only can harm your teeth and gums but may be associated with serious medical conditions. Research has shown that infections in the mouth may be associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, pneumonia and other health problems that are common in older adults. It really only takes a few simple steps, brushing and flossing daily, visiting your dentist regularly and eating nutritious foods to be Mouth Healthy for Life.
Diabetes is a chronic disease which affects your body's ability to process sugar. The resulting high blood sugar can cause problems with your eyes, nerves, kidneys, heart and other parts of your body. Diabetes can lower your resistance to infection and can slow the healing process.
If you have diabetes, you are at greater risk of developing some oral health problems. The most common oral health problems associated with diabetes are:
- Gum disease - Recent research suggests that the connection between gum disease and diabetes goes both ways. On the one hand, because of lowered resistance and a longer healing process, gum disease appears to be more frequent and more severe among those with diabetes. Conversely, it appears that treating gum disease in people with diabetes can help improve blood sugar control.
- Fungal infections - Since diabetes compromises your immune system, you may be prone to developing fungal infections. Symptoms include painful sores and difficulty swallowing. If you develop a fungal infection, see your dentist.
- Infection and delayed healing - If you are having extensive oral surgery, your dentist may prescribe antibiotics to minimize the risk of infection. To help the healing process, keep your blood glucose levels under control before, during and after surgery.
Good oral hygiene habits, including professional cleanings at the dental office, are important if you are to control the progression of gum disease and other oral health problems. Regular dental checkups and periodontal screenings are important for evaluating overall dental health and for treating dental problems in their initial stages. Your dentist may recommend more frequent evaluations and preventive procedures, such as teeth cleaning, to maintain good oral health.
Healthy Habits - Brush and Floss Daily
Brushing and flossing your teeth is just as important for you as it is for your grandchildren. Even though it may have been years since you've had a cavity, your risk of cavities increases with age. One of the reasons is dry mouth a common side effect of many prescription medications.
Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoridetoothpaste. Choose a toothbrush with soft bristles and a small head to get to those hard to reach areas. Replace your toothbrush every three or four months, or sooner if the bristles becomes frayed. If you have arthritis or other condition that limits movement, try an electric toothbrush.
Clean between teeth daily with floss. If floss is too difficult to work with, try a floss pick or tiny brushes made specifically to clean between teeth.
When you're buying oral care products, look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance. The ADA Seal has been around since 1931, and when you see it on a package you can trust that the product is safe and does what the manufacturer advertises.
Clean Dentures Daily
Bacteria stick to your teeth and also to full or partial dentures. If you wear dentures, remember to clean them on a daily basis with cleaners made specifically for dentures. Do not use toothpastes for natural teeth or household cleaners, which are too abrasive and can damage dentures that can be expensive to replace.
Take your dentures out of your mouth for at least four hours every 24 hours to keep the lining of your mouth healthy. It's best to remove your full or partial dentures at night. Your dentist will provide you with instructions about how long your dentures should be worn each day.
Visit a Dentist Regularly
Get regular dental checkups at least once a year please do not wait until you have pain. Why? As you age, the nerves inside your teeth become smaller and less sensitive. By the time you feel pain from a cavity, it may be too late and you may lose your tooth. There are also more serious conditions that your dentist will look for, like oral cancer and gum disease, which do not always cause pain until the advanced stages of the disease. By then, it's more difficult and costly to treat.
When you go to your dentist for a check-up bring the following information:
- List of medications, including vitamins, herbal remedies, and over-the-counter medications
- List of medical conditions and allergies
- Information and phone numbers of all health care providers, doctors, and your previous dentist
- Information about your emergency contacts, someone who can help make decisions on your behalf in the case of a medical emergency
- Dental insurance or Medicaid cards
- Your dentures or partials, even if you don't wear them
Be sure to talk with your dentist about how to properly secure and dispose of any unused, unwanted or expired medications, especially if there are any children in the household. Also, take the time to talk with your children and/or grandchildren about the dangers of using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.
If you don't currently have a dentist, you can search for one at ADA Find-a-Dentist. Simply put in your address for a list of ADA member dentists near your home.
Drink Water with Fluoride
No matter what age you are, drinking water with fluoride helps prevent toothdecay. Fluoride is nature's cavity fighter. Many community water systems contain added fluoride, but if you prefer bottled water, check the label because some do not contain fluoride. And, some home water filters remove fluoride from the tap water. Visit the ADA Seal product search page for a list of water filters that do not remove fluoride from tap water.
It's never too late to quit smoking. Smoking increases problems with gum disease, tooth decay and tooth loss. It also slows down healing after dental procedures and can decrease the success rate of dental implants. Talk to your dentist about quitting. There are tobacco cessation programs, over-the counter products and prescription medications that your dentist may prescribe or recommend to help you quit for good. Smokefree.gov is another good resource to help you quit today.
The Link Between Medications and Cavities
You may wonder why you're suddenly getting cavities when you haven't had them in years. As we get older, we enter a second round of cavity prone years. One common cause of cavities in older adults is dry mouth. Dry mouth is not a normal part of aging. However, it is a side-effect in more than 500 medications, including those for allergies or asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pain, anxiety or depression, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.This is just one reason why it's so important to tell your dentist about any medications that you're taking. Your dentist can make recommendations to help relieve your dry mouth symptoms and prevent cavities. Here are some common recommendations:
- Use over-the-counter oral moisturizers, such as a spray or mouthwash.
- Consult with your physician on whether to change the medication or dosage.
- Drink more water. Carry a water bottle with you, and don't wait until you're thirsty to drink. Your mouth needs constant lubrication.
- Use sugar-free gum or lozenges to stimulate saliva production.
- Get a humidifier to help keep moisture in the air.
- Avoid foods and beverages that irritate dry mouths, like coffee, alcohol, carbonated soft drinks, and acidic fruit juices.
- Your dentist may apply a fluoride gel or varnish to protect your teeth from cavities.
Many older adults have gum, or periodontal disease, caused by the bacteria inplaque, which irritate the gums, making them swollen, red and more likely to bleed. One reason gum disease is so widespread among adults is that it's often a painless condition until the advanced stage. If left untreated, gums can begin to pull away from the teeth and form deepened spaces called pockets where food particles and more plaque may collect. Advanced gum disease can eventually destroy the gums, bone and ligaments supporting the teeth leading to tooth loss. The good news is that with regular dental visits gum disease can be treated or prevented entirely.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are about 35,000 cases of mouth, throat and tongue cancer diagnosed each year. The average age of most people diagnosed with these cancers is 62. During dental visits, your dentist will check for any signs of oral cancer. Regular dental visits are important because in the early stages oral cancer typically does not cause pain and early detection saves lives. Some symptoms you may see include open sores, white or reddish patches, and changes in the lips, tongue and lining of the mouth that lasts for more than two weeks.
Do I Need to Take an Antibiotic before a Dental Procedure?
If you have a heart condition or artificial joint, be sure to tell your dentist. You may think it's not relevant. After all, what do your heart and joints have to do with your teeth? But, there are conditions with a high risk of infection and an antibiotic is recommended prior to some dental procedures.
Dentists follow recommendations that have been developed by the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons in cooperation with the American Dental Association. Talk to your dentist about how these recommendations might apply to you.
Caregiving for a Disabled or Elderly Loved One
You may have a parent, spouse or friend who has difficulty maintaining a healthy mouth on their own. How can you help? Two things are critical:
- Help them keep their mouth clean with reminders to brush and floss daily.
- Make sure they get to a dentist regularly.
These steps can prevent many problems, but tasks that once seemed so simple can become very challenging. If your loved one is having difficulty with brushingand flossing, talk to a dentist or hygienist who can provide helpful tips or a different approach. There are dentists who specialize in caring for the elderly and disabled. You can locate a specialist through the Special Care Dentistry Association's referral directory. For those who wear dentures, pay close attention to their eating habits. If they're having difficulty eating or are not eating as much as usual, denture problems could be the cause.
When you're caring for someone who is confined to bed, they may have so many health problems that it's easy to forget about oral health. However, it's still very important because bacteria from the mouth can be inhaled into the lungs and cause pneumonia. If you are a representative for a nursing home resident who needs dental care and is enrolled in Medicaid, there is a regulation, called an Incurred Medical Expense, that may help pay for medically necessary care as determined by a dentist. The Medicaid caseworker at the nursing facility and the dentist providing care can work together to apply the Incurred Medical Expense to pay for needed dental benefits.
An apple a day keeps cavities away? You can help prevent tooth decay by making smart and healthy food choices. Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean proteins like turkey, chicken and fish. Limit processed foods and beverages that are high in sugar they can lead to tooth decay and obesity. Also, limit your alcohol intake since alcohol can irritate the sensitive lining of the mouth and may also increase your risk of oral cancer. To learn what foods are best for you, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov, a website from the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If you've lost any teeth, it's a good idea to replace them. A full set of teeth will help you chew delicious and nutritious foods like meats, beans, fruits, grains, and vegetables. Ill-fitting dentures can lead to diets of soft food that are low in nutrients and don't help your mouth stay clean.
Many medications can affect the taste of foods, your food preferences, and your appetite, so be sure to report any changes in your eating habits to your physician, dentist and dental hygienist.
Calcium Supplements: Bad for Your Heart?
Calcium is an important part of everyone's diet, and it's especially important as we get older to prevent bone loss or osteoporosis. Osteoporosis can happen in the jaw bone and when it does, may lead to your teeth becoming loose or falling out.
In a recent study, people who got their calcium almost exclusively from supplements were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack compared with those who took no supplements.
Health care professionals recommend most adults get about 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day preferably from foods, including low-fat dairy like milk, cheese and yogurt since they contain other bone building nutrients along with calcium. That's about 3 cups a day. If you prefer vegetables and leafy greens, try broccoli, spinach, kale, and Swiss chard, which also provide some calcium.
Calcium doesn't work alone. Other nutrients, like phosphorus, are an important part of the structure of teeth. And vitamin D is needed to help absorb, carry and deposit calcium in the bone that supports your teeth.