Blog Post

Getting older doesn’t have to mean losing your teeth!

By Alicia M. Colombo

New oral challenges often develop as you grow older. Common dental problems that seniors experience include dry mouth, tooth decay, gum disease and oral cancer. Your oral health affects nutrition, digestion, speech, self-esteem, quality of life and social interactions. If left untreated, these dental conditions can lead to tooth loss and other serious problems, such as malnutrition.

Nearly 1-in-5 adults aged 65 or older have lost all of their teeth, and complete tooth loss is twice as prevalent among adults 75-plus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Here are some of the most common dental conditions that affect people 65 and older, along with tips from the American Dental Association (ADA) to help you keep your teeth.

Tooth decay

The ADA refers to late life as your “second round of cavity-prone years,” because 96% of older adults have at least one cavity and 20% currently have untreated tooth decay. One common cause of tooth decay and cavities in older adults is dry mouth.

While dry mouth is not a normal part of aging, it is a side effect of more than 500 medications, including those for chronic conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol, anxiety or depression, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. This underscores the importance of informing your health care professional about any medications that you’re taking.

Some ways to relieve dry mouth:

  • Use over-the-counter oral moisturizers, such as a spray or mouthwash.
  • Drink more water. Your mouth needs constant lubrication. Carry a water bottle with you, and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.
  • Use sugar-free gum or lozenges to stimulate saliva production.
  • Get a humidifier to help keep moisture in the air.
  • Avoid coffee, alcohol, carbonated soft drinks and acidic fruit juices.
  • Ask your dentist about a fluoride gel or varnish to protect your teeth from cavities.

Gum disease

Almost 70% of older adults have periodontal (gum) disease, according to the CDC. Gum disease is caused by bacteria in plaque, which irritates the gums, making them swollen, red and more likely to bleed. 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.

Often painless until the advanced stage, gum disease can destroy the gums, bone and ligaments supporting the teeth leading to tooth loss. The best way to prevent tooth decay and treat gum disease, at any age, is to brush with fluoride toothpaste twice a day, floss your teeth daily, and visit the dentist at least once a year for a checkup and cleaning.

Oral cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, there are about 35,000 cases of mouth, throat and tongue cancer diagnosed each year. Oral cancers are primarily diagnosed in older adults, with an average age of diagnosis at 62. Regular dental visits, which include an oral cancer screening, are vital since the early stages typically don’t cause pain. Some symptoms of oral cancer may include open sores, white or reddish patches, and changes in the lips, tongue and mouth that last for more than two weeks.

Low-cost dental care Dental care can be costly for older adults, since Medicare does not cover routine dental care and some states limit dental coverage under Medicaid. This is especially troubling, since the CDC contends that Americans with the poorest oral health tend to be those who are economically disadvantaged and lack insurance or access to dental care. Here are some suggestions for low-cost dental insurance or care:

  • Some organizations, like AARP, offer supplemental dental insurance plans to their members.
  • Federally Qualified Health Centers: FindaHealthCenter.hrsa.gov
  • Dental Lifeline Network helps provide access to care for seniors 65-plus, who have a permanent disability or are medically fragile: DentalLifeline.org/Pennsylvania