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Oral Health Care Issues Facing the Elderly

By Pamela Li, in Articles, on March 16, 2014 | Comments (0)

Ottawa geriatric dentistOttawa, Ontario – As the population of the world ages, there are unique challenges our senior citizens face. Their oral care is one of them, as aging is associated with issues such as muscle weakness and a higher risk for dental caries.

“There are so many issues that face our seniors that many people may not stop to think about how aging affects our teeth and mouths,” says Ottawa geriatric dentist Dr. Pamela Li. “But as we age, our bodies change, affecting our oral health, as well. Additionally, medications senior citizens take can cause issues such as dry mouth, and the dentin on the teeth can wear down, leading to cavities and decay.”

Dr. Li, who as a family dentist has the unique opportunity to serve members of a family from the youngest to the oldest, explains what those over the age 60 should be on the look out for.

As we get older, our mouths become more prone to cavities. One common cause of this is dry mouth. While some may associate this with aging, it is not a regular part of aging, but is mostly the cause of taking certain medications. In fact, over 500 medications, from those for asthma to high blood pressure to high cholesterol, can all cause this condition. This makes it crucial for patients to disclose any medications they may be taking to their dentists. The dentist will then be able to adjust you care, keeping this in mind.

People with severe dry mouth may have difficulty swallowing or speaking due to dry tissues.  They may have a generalized burning sensation in the mouth, oral abrasions and ulcerations and disturbed sleep patterns.

“There are some things you can do to ease your dry mouth,” says Dr. Li. “Your physician may be able to alter your medication dose, but you can do things such as chew sugarless gum to stimulate saliva production. Avoid foods and drinks that contribute to dry mouth, such as coffee, alcohol and citrus fruits. Use a cool air humidifier at night which will help with sleep.  For dry lips, use lanolin instead of Vaseline. There are products to help ease the symptoms of dry mouth. Biotene makes a nice gentle toothpaste, gum and mouthrinse.  Oralbalance and Saliva Sure are also helpful.”

Dry mouth is a cause for concern because saliva act as a natural barrier to tooth decay. After you eat or drink, your saliva will work to wash away the sugars and bacteria that will otherwise stick to the teeth, and over time, lead to decay. Root decay especially is a big problem in the elderly. Fluoride is still the best way to prevent cavities.

Periodontal disease is also a concern for senior citizens. Gum disease is caused by bacteria and results in swollen, red, bleeding and irritated gums. Many seniors may not even know they have it until it reaches its advanced stages. But if left untreated, a patient’s gums will begin to pull away from the teeth, created pockets where food and bacteria particles can collect. Over time, the gum disease will destroy not only the gums, but also the bone and ligaments that support the teeth. Advanced periodontal disease can also lead to tooth loss. This is why it is so important for our seniors to maintain regular dentistry check-ups so gum disease can be treated at the first sign of appearance.

But periodontal disease might not just affect your mouth. The workings of the body are all closely inter-related and patients who suffer from severe periodontal disease double their risk of fatal heart disease and increase their chance of stroke.

That means visiting your dentist could save your life. And regular visits to their dentist can also lead to early detection of mouth cancer. During a regular check-up, your dentist will check for signs of mouth cancer, which mostly affects people over the age of 62. The disease is not painful in the beginning, so early detection can help save lives. If you notice open sores, white or red patches, or changes to your lips, tongue or inside of your mouth, call your dentist immediately.

Elderly patients also face unique challenges that can make regular care of their teeth more difficult. Severe arthritis can make even holding a toothbrush or dental floss difficult, and as we age, it may become harder and harder to stand at a sink, even for the few minutes it takes to brush our teeth.

“That’s when family members become so important,” says Dr. Li. “Just as you would remind your older family member to take their heart medication, you also need to remind them to properly care for their teeth and gums, too. If your loved one is having difficulty brushing or flossing, call my office and we can talk about different ways we can help. If your loved one wears dentures, pay close attention to how the dentures fit. Over time, they may require new dentures, but poor fit may lead to difficulty eating.”

If you help care for a loved one who is confined to bed, be sure to continue to maintain their oral health by helping them brush and floss each day. Not only is poor oral care associated with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, bacteria from the mouth can also enter the lungs and cause pneumonia.

The average Canadian man has a life expectancy of 79 years, while the average woman will live to 84. More than 80 percent of Canada’s elderly population has some sort of chronic health condition, which could include arthritis, back pain, cardiovascular disease. That means it is all the more important for these patient to receive regular, quality dental care.

A recent article posted by the Canadian Dental Association states that, while all Canadian citizens have prepaid access to a health care plan administered by the government, these plans don’t cover dental services. And that means many seniors may simply go without this important service.

The article reports that while older patients may claim to brush and floss regularly, they still had untreated caries and periodontal pockets. Some interviewed for the survey reported avoiding certain foods due to mouth pain while eating, while others reported persistent mouth pain. This may be because many avoid the dentist, or declined treatment because the cost was too much.

“This is something we as dentists all need to be aware of,” says Dr. Li. “Because taking care of your teeth is so important to your overall health, we need to ensure easy access with affordable payments are available to all our citizens. With proper care, we’re seeing more and more adults enter their senior years with their natural teeth still intact.”

Learning proper oral care needs to begin at a young age, but that care needs to continue into our senior years, as well. As we age, we face many issues, but poor oral care and the issues associated with it do not have to be among them. With proper brushing and flossing, maintaining a healthy diet and keeping regular visits to the dentist, our seniors can ensure healthy mouths for their entire lifetime.


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