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Older Adults: Don’t Brush Off Dental Care

Older adults may have dental concerns that can’t be totally taken care of with just brushing, flossing, and regular cleanings at their dentist’s office.

Your dentist may have talked with you about the dental health issues that arise later in life, such as dentures or dry mouth. You can keep your teeth and gums in fine shape by continuing good dental care, no matter what concerns you have.

Dentures

Dentures may make your mouth less sensitive to hot foods and liquids. They may also make it more difficult to notice bones or other harmful objects in your food.

Dentures need to be kept clean and free of food particles to keep your mouth healthy and to prevent discoloration. Have your dentist show you how to clean them and wear them properly.

According to the American Dental Association, you should take care of your dentures as you would your natural teeth. So brush them daily and visit your dentist regularly. When you go to sleep, remove your dentures and put them in water or a denture-cleaning liquid. Partial dentures should be cared for in the same way.

Dry Mouth

This condition occurs when the salivary glands do not make enough saliva. You may have difficulty swallowing, tasting, or even speaking. Dry mouth is a common problem among older adults, but it is not a normal part of aging. Many medications, including diuretics, analgesics, antihistamines, and decongestants, may cause dry mouth. Certain medical conditions can cause it, too, including diabetes, Sjögren’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

See your dentist if you are experiencing dry mouth. Without enough saliva to rinse away food particles from your teeth, you increase the risk of developing tooth decay. Take frequent sips of water and limit your intake of alcohol, caffeine, carbonated drinks, and tobacco, which can dry out your mouth. Some people also find sugar-free gum or sugar-free hard candy helpful. Your dentist may suggest using artificial saliva or an oral rinse, which are available at most drugstores. There are also prescription medications that may help your salivary glands work better.

Gum Disease

Gum disease affects both the gums and the bones that hold your teeth in place. When plaque stays on your teeth for an extended period, it forms a hard covering called tartar that won’t come off with brushing. Tartar is loaded with bacteria and can lead to gum disease.

The key to preventing gum disease is to brush and floss regularly. This removes plaque that is sticking to your teeth. If plaque is allowed to linger, you could develop gingivitis, which causes your gums to become red and swollen and to bleed. Left untreated, gingivitis can develop into periodontitis (gum disease), which can wear away the tissues and the bones that support your teeth. Food stuck between the teeth, smoking, smokeless tobacco, ill-fitting bridges, and defective fillings can make periodontitis worse.

Keep Your Old Habits

The problems your dentist warned you about as a child should still concern you. Cavities and gum disease are things to watch for throughout your life. To protect against these lifelong concerns—and the new issues that may develop with age—keep up these good dental habits:

  • Brush your teeth gently at least twice a day and floss at least daily.

  • Drink fluoridated water and use fluoride toothpaste.

  • Visit your dentist regularly.

  • Eat a balanced diet.

  • Have regular checkups and cleanings.

  • Avoid tobacco.

“Dentures.” Mouth Healthy, American Dental Association. www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/d/DenturesAccessed 2013.

“Oral Health for Older Americans.” CDC Division of Oral Health. December 2006. www.cdc.gov/OralHealth/publications/factsheets/adult_oral_health/adult_older.htmAccessed 2013.

“Periodontal (Gum) Disease: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments.” National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Revised August 2012. www.nidcr.nih.gov/OralHealth/Topics/GumDiseases/PeriodontalGumDisease.htmAccessed 2013.

“Gum Disease.” American Dental Association. www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/g/gum-diseaseAccessed 2013.

“Dry Mouth.” Mouth Healthy, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, September 2010. www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/d/dry-mouthAccessed 2013.

“Do You Have Dry Mouth?” Journal of the American Dental Association. October 2002, vol. 133, p. 1455. www.ada.org/sections/scienceAndResearch/pdfs/patient_19.pdfAccessed 2013.

“Senior Oral Health.” American Dental Hygienists’ Association. www.adha.org/resources-docs/7255_Senior_Oral_Health.pdfAccessed 2013.

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