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Seniors’ Oral Health: More Than Dentures

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Seniors’ Oral Health: More Than Dentures

Seniors’ Oral Health: More Than Dentures

September 24, 2007
By: Beth Walsh for Dental1

As we age, physical changes affect the body overall – but maintaining good oral health can play a big role. Elderly patients can feel that dental care is less important since many face conditions that are widely-considered more significant to their daily quality of life. But, good dental health is important for self-confidence as well as eating and speaking comfortably.
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  • Teeth can last a lifetime with proper home care and regular dental checkups. However, cavities and decay on the root surfaces of the teeth are more common in older adults. Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, floss daily and see your dentist regularly for professional cleanings and checkups.
  • Sensitivity can be an increasing problem as people age. Gums naturally recede, exposing areas of the tooth that are not protected by enamel. These areas are susceptible to discomfort due to hot and cold food and drinks. Your dentist can recommend an anti-sensitivity toothpaste. Check to see if the sensitivity is due to a more serious problem like a cavity or cracked tooth.
  • Existing health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer can affect your oral health. Keep your dentist informed about these conditions and the medications you’re taking for them.
  • Gum disease is a potentially serious condition that can affect people of all ages, but especially people older than 40. The earliest stages of gum disease are reversible, so early detection is important.

  • One study found that nursing home residents who received regular dental cleanings were not only less likely to contract pneumonia, but also less likely to die from the infection if they did develop one. Since pneumonia is caused by germs that gather in the lungs and block the flow of oxygen to the body, if air in the mouth is already tainted with disease-causing bacteria, it is easier for an infection to spread to the lungs. Those who didn't receive the professional cleanings were twice as likely to develop pneumonia and twice as likely to die from the infection.

    Several other recent studies have shown that poor oral health can lead to aspiration pneumonia, an infection that occurs when bits of food or stomach contents are inhaled into the lungs. Researchers from the University of Michigan and Veterans Administration found that patients were at higher risk for aspiration pneumonia if they had dental plaque or certain types of mouth bacteria. Another study found that better dental care among the elderly – especially in nursing homes – could reduce cases of aspiration pneumonia. Patients who had a stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or needed help eating were at risk for the ailment.

    Aside from the links between dental health and disease, other physical changes affect oral health as we age. Soft tissues like the gums and cheeks lose their elasticity and muscles become weaker. The amount of saliva produced by the salivary glands also decreases. Dry mouth makes it more difficult to chew and digest food. The oral mucosa become more friable and its healing abilities are reduced. The chances of decay may also increase. Furthermore, treatment of many chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart problems and Parkinson's disease involves drugs that can cause the salivary glands to produce less saliva, causing dry mouth.

    Tooth decay in older adults appears most frequently around the teeth at the level of the gums. The root portion of a tooth, when exposed due to gum recession, is especially susceptible to decay. Also, tooth enamel becomes thinner with wear and tear. The hard enamel covering may be worn away leaving the dentin exposed. This dentin is more easily worn down and more prone to erosion by acidic foods.

    Dentures are removable prostheses whose fit depends largely on the neighboring teeth and supporting bone. However, as one ages, the supporting bone tends to shrink or resorb. Dentures may then become loose and injure the surrounding tissues, causing discomfort and even ulcers. Therefore, dentures usually need to be changed every three to five years.

    Moreover, dentures accumulate food debris and plaque like the teeth they replace. Dentures should be scrubbed with a brush to remove these deposits; commercial denture cleaning solutions will not adequately clean dentures. However, they are quite effective in removing the odor of stale food from dentures.

    The care of remaining natural teeth and gums should not be neglected. In particular, those teeth supporting a partial denture should be brushed as some of these teeth have metal clasps around them that can trap food.

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