“Brush your teeth.” You've been hearing it since you were two. As you get older, it's even more important, and you need to be sure you add flossing to the regimen. Our vulnerability to oral infection rises as we age, and infection is the biggest cause of tooth loss in older adults. Not only are missing teeth unattractive and potentially lead to social isolation, they make it hard to chew certain foods. That can prevent older adults from getting the nourishment they need.
Both cavities and gum disease — periodontitis — contribute to tooth loss. A recent article in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society points out that older adults are nearly twice as likely to develop cavities, and as many as 64 percent of older adults in the United States have moderate or severe periodontitis compared with less than 38 percent for younger people.
Poor oral health affects more than just teeth and is especially dangerous for seniors. Bacteria in the mouth can enter the blood stream through bleeding gums or as dental work is being done and travel throughout the body, infecting the heart and any implants a person may have, including artificial joints and replacement heart valves. When your mouth is harboring infectious bacteria, even just brushing your teeth can release bacteria into your bloodstream.
Decreased saliva also increases the chances of tooth decay. You may be able to improve your salivation by chewing sugarless gum with xylitol.
Certain medications, as well as age, can lead to decreased saliva, which also raises the chance of tooth decay. Report these symptoms to your doctor or dentist. You may not be able to go off the medications that are causing dry mouth, but you may be able to improve your salivation by chewing sugarless gum with xylitol. Those with a history of tooth decay may want to ask about prescription-strength fluoride mouth rinses and fluoride varnishes.
Of course the real key is good dental hygiene. Brush daily with an electric toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Floss daily, using a floss holder if your hands are too stiff to easily manipulate the floss. See your dentist at least twice a year. If you have gum disease or are at risk for it, use a mouthwash with chlorhexidine.
There are “don'ts,” too: Don't smoke or chew tobacco. Avoid foods high in sugar, especially sticky candies.
Keeping your teeth and gums clean and healthy is a part of healthy aging that is within your control. Honor the pleasure your mouth gives you: take the time to practice good oral care.