Oral Health and Healthy Aging: A Powerful Connection

Related topics: Health & Wellness

A prominent dentist shares important information for the National Council on Aging (NCOA)

Senior man brushing his teeth

Many people—patients and healthcare professionals alike—believe that toothaches, painful bleeding gums, and tooth loss are as inevitable as gray hair, wrinkles, and fragile skin as we grow older. The truth is that dental diseases are not a normal part of aging, and preventing them is an important part of healthy aging.

We learned the basics of caring for our teeth and gums as children, but as many people age, their oral hygiene becomes less of a priority. This often leads to a number of dental problems. Among adults aged 65+:

  • 30 percent have broken and decayed teeth.
  • Over 40 percent have puffy, infected gums.
  • Over 23 percent have no teeth at all.

It's important for older adults to be aware that dental problems are more than just pain and/or the inability to chew. The truth is, poor oral hygiene can actually put you at risk for many other serious health conditions. Here's what you need to know about each.

1. Malnutrition. Teeth that are severely worn, broken down, or missing make it very difficult for older adults to chew foods like meat, vegetables, and nuts. They tend to avoid these key sources of nutrients, and instead turn to foods that are softer and easier to chew and are often high in sugar and salt. Diets lacking protein and important vitamins and minerals can cause malnutrition, which can lead to physical deterioration, falls, a weakened immune system, and chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease.

2. Loneliness. The damage from oral diseases can trigger feelings of personal embarrassment. Our smile is our first introduction to others, and when it is framed with stained and/or missing teeth, the decline in appearance causes many seniors to lose self-confidence and avoid social interactions. "My teeth and gums hurt, and my breath smells bad. I do not want my family and friends to see me like this. I am so self-conscious. It's just terrible," confesses one older patient. Older adults want to feel good, look good, and be confident. When they don't, they isolate themselves. This can lead to loneliness, which has real physical and mental health implications: It affects mortality, and increases the risk of anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline.

3. Illnesses. The same germs that cause gum pain, bad breath, and tooth decay also have the potential to enter the bloodstream, travel to other organs in the body, and cause diseases. For example, pus from swollen gums can migrate to the heart and lungs and induce respiratory infections like pneumonia. Additionally, conditions like periodontal disease have been shown to have strong links to other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.

Make Dental Care a Priority!

If you've been neglecting your oral hygiene, it's time to start taking it seriously. Learn how to prevent dental problems as you age by following these oral health tips.

1. Adopt the right oral care techniques. Is an electric toothbrush better than a manual toothbrush? Could flossing aids make the process a little easier? Can handles of tooth brushes and floss aids be adapted for people with arthritis so they are easier to hold? The answer to all of these is YES! Additionally, many different mouth rinses and toothpastes are available to stop decay and kill the bacteria that can cause gum disease and bad breath. There are also products that are specifically formulated for dry mouth and painful ulcers. Schedule time to talk to your dentist, primary doctor, or physical therapist about these brushing and flossing techniques, as well as preventative products that might be right for you.

2. Make sure you're producing enough saliva. Many medications and illnesses can limit saliva production, but saliva actually has powerful properties that protect us from disorders such as severe and rapid tooth decay, yeast infections, and gum disease. More than 400 of the most commonly prescribed drugs for older adults promote dry mouth and taste disturbances. If you are currently taking any medications, and have noticed these symptoms, talk with your doctor to see if there are other medication options you could try.

3. Stay away from acid-producing foods. Your odds of having dental disease aren't only affected by how well you brush, or the medications you take, but also by what you eat and how often you indulge. Germs love to feed on sticky sugary foods, which produce acid that promotes tooth and gum decay—and that means cavities. For every exposure to sugar, bacteria produce acids that burn your teeth and gums for twenty minutes.

Remember that oral problems are not inevitable as we age. It's so important to see your dentist for routine checkups and cleanings. Visit the NCOA website  to learn about the dental care services your Medicare plan will and will not cover, as well as where to find help paying for dental services.

Source: Leonard Brennan, DMD, for the National Council on Aging (NCOA). The NCOA is a respected national leader and trusted partner to help people aged 60+ meet the challenges of aging. Their mission is to improve the lives of millions of older adults, especially those who are struggling. Through innovative community programs and services, online help, and advocacy, NCOA is partnering with nonprofit organizations, government, and business to improve the health and economic security of 10 million older adults by 2020.