Senior Adult Dental Health

Today’s senior adults are keeping their teeth longer than ever before. Thanks to improved awareness of the importance and benefits of oral health, dentures are no longer expected as part of getting older. American men have an average lifespan of 76 years and women live an average of 81 years, according to the CDC. With increasing age however, today’s seniors face unique challenges in keeping their teeth healthy. Let’s talk about a few common obstacles.

Tooth decay can increase in our later years, due to several reasons. Many commonly prescribed medications have dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, as a side effect. Adequate saliva is vital for the health of our mouth. Saliva dilutes acids produced by bacteria, contains antibodies that fight off infections and lubricates our teeth and soft tissues. If people have suffered periodontal disease or gum recession and the roots of their teeth are exposed, these areas are at increased risk for decay. Root surfaces are softer than the enamel-covered crowns of our teeth and can be more challenging to keep clean.

When not enough saliva is produced, increased cavities can be the result. Increased tooth wear and generalized soreness of the tongue and other soft tissues is also common in dry mouths, as saliva is the lubricant that reduces friction in chewing. Inadequate saliva can also make wearing dentures difficult as saliva is needed to help ‘stick’ the appliances to the roof of the mouth and gum tissue.

Managing a dry mouth is challenging and products formulated for this problem may be recommended by your dental team. Products that are soothing and contain fewer irritants or alcohol can help sore tissues feel better. Xylitol is a common ingredient in toothpaste, mouthrinses, sprays and lozenges that can feel soothing and help reduce tooth decay. Fluoride in these products will also help reduce decay and strengthen weak areas of teeth. Avoid sipping on beverages that contain sugar and acids as these can increase the risk of cavities. Smoking can also increase mouth dryness and is best avoided.

If people lose some manual dexterity in their hands due to arthritis, the simple acts of brushing and flossing become difficult to perform. Powered toothbrushes and floss holders can be helpful as they require less fine manipulation to do their jobs.

Like other areas of our health, our mouths can require more attention to maintenance over time. Our activities can become more limited in our later years. Enjoying a conversation or a meal with friends and family is much more comfortable and pleasurable with healthy teeth!