Dental Health and Aging
Taking care of one’s teeth and gums is as important for senior citizens as it is for youngsters — if not more so. After all, the state of an elderly person’s oral health can have a significant bearing on quality of life: how comfortably he or she can eat, speak, and smile. Poor oral health can lead to tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease. Untreated periodontal disease can worsen chronic health conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. At the same time, maintaining oral health as we age presents its own special challenges. That’s why it is often important for the grown children of older adults to take an active role in seeing to their parents’ needs in this crucial area.
Challenges and Solutions
Xerostomia (“xero” – dry; “stoma” – mouth) sets the stage and increases the risk for tooth decay — can also be a real problem with aging. As we age, we just don’t produce as much saliva. In addition, many drugs (both prescription and over-the-counter) tend to dry out the mouth.
In addition, the aging population can develop problems with digestion from mild heartburn to gastric reflux or a condition known as Gastric Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). In the case of digestive problems, stomach acids can end up in the mouth and erode the tooth structure. Treatment of gastric reflux may also decrease acidity in the mouth.
The best way to make sure elderly loved ones are getting needed oral health care is to offer to take them to the dentist if they haven’t been in the last six months or longer. Make sure you bring along a list of all medications (prescription or over-the-counter) and herbal/dietary supplements they are taking, and be prepared to detail all of their health conditions and allergies.
Tips for Maintaining and Improving oral Health
Your dentist can diagnose and treat dental health problems before they become serious. Regular dental check-ups and cleanings are an important part of maintaining good dental health as you age.
If the dentist finds that oral hygiene efforts are lacking, ask how you can help. It may be that your loved ones simply need a refresher course and some help gathering the right tools to do the job properly; or they may need a more hands-on type of assistance. The dentist may also recommend prescription antibacterial or fluoride rinses to help reduce risk of tooth decay, or other supplements such as Biotene products to help counter mouth dryness. For patients with an acidic mouth or dry mouth, a simple sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) rinse can be used, especially at night, to neutralize the acidic mouth. (Mix approximately 1 teaspoon to a cup of water or as tolerated).
You can help maintain their dignity by always asking for permission to touch them, and by checking on their comfort periodically as you brush and floss their teeth.
Transitioning into the role of caregiver for an aging loved one is rarely stress-free; just keep in mind that your help will make all the difference.