Aging and Oral Health: Reduce Your Risk for 4 Top Problems
Let’s start with the bad news: As you get older, your risk for certain health problems increases. But the good news is that you can reduce your risk with some simple strategies.
You’re already taking the good first step of learning more about your health needs as an older adult simply by reading this article. When you educate yourself on how aging affects your mouth health, you’ll know how to avoid problems and better maintain your oral health for years to come.
Here, we’ll review four top oral health concerns for aging adults and how you can combat them:
- Dry mouth
- Maintaining at-home hygiene
- Oral cancer
Cavities: Not Just in Kids
Tooth decay, or cavities, are often associated with young children, but tooth decay is a big problem in aging adults. Eighteen percent of adults aged 65 and older have untreated cavities,1 which means that a great portion of seniors aren’t seeing a dentist and getting the care they need.
In addition to seeing your dentist twice each year for preventive care and a deep cleaning, an easy way to prevent cavities is by drinking more water. Water helps wash away the bacteria that leads to cavities, so drinking more of it will keep cavities away.
Drinking water won’t just ward off cavities, it will also help reduce the effects of another top aging oral health concern: dry mouth.
Dry Mouth Is a Bigger Issue Than You Think
Many older adults struggle with dry mouth. It can be caused by cancer treatments and other diseases, and hundreds of medications indirectly cause dry mouth as a side effect.
Dry mouth is certainly uncomfortable, but the concern doesn’t stop there. Dry mouth is a result of reduced saliva in your mouth. Without enough saliva, your mouth loses its top defense against cavities and gum disease. The most advanced form of gum disease (called periodontitis) is the top cause of tooth loss, so it’s important that you do not ignore dry mouth and talk to your doctor and dentist if you experience it.
Drinking more water is a good way to quickly address an occasional bout of dry mouth. But if you have persistent or severe dry mouth, talk to your dentist. Your dentist will get to the bottom of why you have dry mouth, and can offer a solution (like a mouthwash or rinse) to help keep you comfortable and your mouth safe.
What to Do if At-Home Hygiene Hurts
You’ve heard it for as long as you can remember: Brush and floss twice each day. But what do you do if these seemingly simple tasks cause pain?
As you age, you may struggle to hold a toothbrush or maneuver floss between your teeth. Talk to your dentist if this is the case, as he or she can offer products that are specially designed to help people with dexterity needs achieve great at-home dental care.
For example, an electric toothbrush may be a better option compared to a manual one, as electric toothbrushes have larger handles and don’t require as much effort to brush along the teeth. Water flossers are also good alternatives to traditional string floss. Your dentist can provide several options in an array of price points to keep you comfortable maintaining these all-important dental health tasks at home.
It’s Never Too Late to Quit Bad Habits
As you get older, your risk for developing oral cancer increases, and the average age of oral cancer diagnosis is 62.2 You may not realize it, but your dentist performs an oral cancer screening at each of your twice-yearly visits. This is crucial to helping catch the disease early and improving treatment outcomes. But there are two big things you can do to reduce your risk for oral cancer between your important dental visits: Quit using all forms of tobacco and limit your alcohol consumption.
Tobacco and alcohol have long been linked to oral cancer, along with aging. Tobacco causes cell damage, while alcohol prevents the cells from naturally repairing themselves. Together, they put your body at risk for serious disease. Eliminating these habits from your routine will increase your quality of life, and it’s never too late to quit and start living happier and healthier.
Staying Healthy for Longer Is Well Within Reach
Getting older comes with its challenges and extra considerations, and keeping your changing health needs in check can be overwhelming. One of the best ways you can take care of yourself as you get older is to keep your twice yearly dental visits on the calendar. These visits not only give you a great deep mouth cleaning, but your dentist will check for potential problems — including cavities, gum disease and oral cancer — at each visit. This will ensure that issues are caught earlier, which means less invasive and expensive treatment.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve seen a dentist, not to worry. Delta Dental of Iowa can help. Start the process of finding a new dentist by calling our Customer Service team at 800-544-0718 (hearing impaired line available at 888-287-7312). We’ll walk you through the steps so you can be on a path of life-long good oral health care.
1 https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/research/data-statistics/dental-caries/seniors, July 2018
2 https://www.cancercenter.com/cancer-types/oral-cancer/risk-factors, June 2021
https://www.deltadentalia.com/a-healthy-life/dental-health/top-4-senior-oral-health-questions/, September 2013
https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/dental-care-seniors#1, October 2019
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Is Your Medicine Harming Your Mouth?
All medications — both prescription and over-the-counter — have the risk for side effects. Unfortunately, some medications have side effects that can harm your teeth and gums.
Although the risk of experiencing medication side effects is relatively small, it’s important to know your medications’ side effects and how to minimize them. Medications will often list common side effects on the packaging or prescription pamphlet, but you can always ask your doctor about the most common side effects associated with any medication.
If you experience any unexpected or concerning health changes as a result of taking a new medication, call your doctor immediately.
Dry Mouth: A Common Side Effect That’s More Harmful Than You Think
When it comes to medication side effects that affect your mouth, the most common is dry mouth. Hundreds of medications for all sorts of conditions can cause dry mouth.
People often minimize dry mouth, thinking it’s merely an uncomfortable feeling. But dry mouth can lead to larger dental health problems because it decreases the amount of saliva in your mouth. Saliva is an important protector for your whole mouth: It washes away food particles and excess sugar, which helps prevent cavities. Healthy saliva stores also lower your risk for gum disease and oral infections, so it’s a big deal when you don’t have enough saliva keeping your mouth clean, comfortable and healthy.
Drinking more water and chewing sugar-free gum are quick dry mouth fixes, and your dentist can recommend additional treatments to address it.
From Taste to Tooth Staining: Other Oral Health Side Effects
Although dry mouth is the most common oral health side effect of medications, it’s not the only one. Some medicine can cause mouth pain from swollen gums, cold sores or canker sores. Other medications can stain your teeth or affect taste (such as leaving a metallic taste in your mouth). Medicines containing sugar can even increase your risk for cavities.
Your Dentist Can Help Minimize Oral Health Side Effects
It can be challenging to know whether a medication is doing more harm than good when side effects pop up. However, it’s important that you do not stop using prescription medication if you’re experiencing oral health-related side effects. Call your doctor and explain the side effects you’re experiencing, and he or she will work with you to determine if you should change your medication schedule or offer you a different prescription altogether.
It’s also important that your dentist knows the medications you’re taking. Make sure you share your current list of over-the-counter and prescription medications with your dentist at each visit. If you take several medications, it may be helpful to have a list of them handy so you don’t forget any. If you’re experiencing side effects that are causing you pain or discomfort in your mouth, your dentist can share ways to relieve them — keeping you safe and comfortable.