What Happens to Teeth As We Age? Important Oral Health Facts for Seniors and Caregivers
The common refrain from dentists is to floss regularly, brush teeth twice a day, and visit the dentist regularly. This is, of course, is true for oral health throughout one’s life, however, as people age, teeth age too, and oral health becomes just that much more important.
The Effects of Poor Oral Hygiene Over the Years
There are many reasons to keep up an oral hygiene regimen in later years, including avoiding issues like tooth decay and gum disease which can cause regular discomfort. However, some other effects of poor oral hygiene, seemingly, have nothing to do with the mouth.
- Can hinder general nutrition: Oral pain can lead to a lowered appetite and the possibility that one won’t get the kind of nutrition they require.
- Poor oral hygiene can lead to disease: Evidence suggests a connection between gum inflammation and conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and respiratory problems. An older population is more at risk of these conditions. The current theory is that gum infection promotes bacteria that can travel through the bloodstream to cause inflammation in other parts of the body.
May increase risk of dementia: Of particular concern for elderly adults, evidence has shown a connection between oral bacteria and gum inflammation and onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Research into this phenomenon is preliminary, but studies suggest that poor dental health may increase the risk of dementia by up to 70%.
The Effects of Age on the Mouth
Wear and Tear
It’s true that the effects of age take a toll on teeth and gums through wear and tear. A lifetime spent chewing, crunching, gnawing and grinding can wear down enamel and flatten biting edges. One’s diet can also have an effect on teeth as well. You may have heard about how sugary foods or beverages and tobacco use are bad for oral health, but acidic foods like citrus and carbonated beverages have the effect of eroding enamel as well.
When cracks appear in a tooth surface it can leave nerves exposed causing pain. While nerve sensitivity reduces with age (a silver lining, perhaps) it can also mean that oral health issues take longer to recognise. This leads to a greater possibility of infection and severe tooth damage or loss.
Gum tissue naturally recedes with age, so the soft root tissue becomes exposed, making it more prone to infection. This can also cause sensitivity to hot or cold foods or quick changes in temperature.
Tooth decay becomes a larger problem when you get older. Older gums and teeth can be at risk of fracture. Your mouth gets drier as you age and saliva is important in breaking down acids that degrade teeth. Also many common medications for heart disease, cholesterol, and depression cause dry mouth symptoms which can mean a greater risk of tooth decay.
Discolouration of teeth can be common in older adults as well. Over time, foods that stain teeth can cause discolouration, but that’s not the only consideration. Underneath the outer layer of enamel is a second layer known as dentin. As enamel is worn away, dentin is exposed, as is its yellowish colour.
How You Can Protect Your Oral Health
The good news is that positive habits in the realm of oral health can prevent the symptoms of gum disease and tooth decay. There are a number of tools that it is possible to use to help with the basics of dental care for older adults.
Look for a better toothbrush and toothpaste. Effects of arthritis can make tasks like brushing and flossing more difficult. Electric toothbrushes are available that help with brushing coverage. If flossing becomes a chore, water flossers can help with this. If teeth are sensitive, it’s possible that a softer brush is a better solution.
For sensitive teeth, there are specific kinds of toothpaste that make the act of brushing less uncomfortable. If dry mouth is an issue, dentists may be able to offer suggestions for a Biotene toothpaste or mouthwash.
Regular check-ups and check-ins are the cornerstones of keeping a healthy mouth. Making dental appointments in advance and sticking to them on a regular basis is crucial. For older adults, it might be worthwhile to make appointments more often than the usually recommended twice per year. Also, while going to your regular dentist is likely fine, there are also dentists who specialise in elder care whom it may be worth seeking out.
How Families Can Help
There are many ways that family members can assist their older relatives and help them maintain positive oral health habits.
Buying and encouraging food that is positive for oral health is a good start. Many people may help elders with groceries and considering oral health in those purchasing decisions is a good plan. Another part of dietary health that can be encouraged is drinking enough water. Water bottles, straws, and other ways to promote drinking water is not only good to maintain hydration, but it’s also great for oral health.
Family can help elders keep up with appointments. Sometimes travel or remembering to make a dental appointment can be challenging. Keeping this on the list of ways to help an elder is good planning. Many appointment services have moved online, making them less accessible to older people for whom using the internet is difficult. Family can help navigate this too. Also, regular check-ins and conversations (at least once a month) about how oral health is going can make a huge difference.
Creating good habits can mean helping with reminders. Everyone can use a reminder to make sure they are practicing good oral health, however, particularly for people who are in the early stages of dementia, specific reminders surrounding teeth brushing can be important. Routines are comforting in general and the use of alarms, or association (say with a favourite show on television) can make oral health an ingrained part of the day. Visual cues can also be helpful. This article on ageing teeth provides printable dental health reminder stickers that you can download to help your loved one remember to floss, brush, and visit the dentist regularly.
There are many concerns to tackle when considering how to stay healthy as an older adult. Making sure to be educated and invested in keeping teeth clean and gums free from infection will do a world of good toward quality of life and general well-being. Looking to family and friends for help is another great way to stay connected and continue to keep a smile on one’s face long into the future.