Oral health can affect a person’s overall health and quality of life. Preventive dental care is particularly important for seniors, as they are more susceptible to many health conditions related to dental problems. Some of the most common dental problems include:

Tooth decay: Seniors are at increased risk for cavities due to dry mouth, which can be a side effect of drugs taken for depression, asthma or high blood pressure.

Gum disease: Gum disease can cause sore, bleeding gums, chewing problems and tooth loss.

Tooth loss: Having missing teeth or wearing dentures can affect a senior’s level of nutrition, because people without teeth or with dentures often prefer soft, easy-to-chew foods instead of foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the oral health statistics for seniors 65 and older are alarming:

  • Nearly one in five seniors have untreated tooth decay.
  • Two out of three have gum disease.
  • One in five have lost all their teeth.

Risks and Complications

Oral cancers are more commonly diagnosed in older adults. A study found that poor oral hygiene due to infrequent tooth brushing was associated with primary oral cancer.

If you – as a senior – have a chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you are more likely to develop gum disease.

In addition, inflammation due to gum disease increases the risk of heart disease. People with diabetes who have poor blood sugar control are at a higher risk for gum disease which, in turn, affects a person’s ability to control blood sugar levels.

A study found that aspiration pneumonia, which is a result of poor oral hygiene and health, was a leading cause of deadly infections among the elderly. One in 10 elderly patients admitted to the hospital arrived with aspiration pneumonia.

According to the National Institutes of Health, osteoporosis, a common disease among seniors, can lead to tooth loss due to reduced bone density in the jaw that supports and anchors the teeth.

Prevention

To avoid dental problems, preventive dental care is extremely important.

Prevention should include:

  • Brushing teeth twice a day for at least two minutes each.
  • Flossing daily, to remove food from between teeth.
  • Rinsing with mouthwash after flossing.
  • Avoiding acidic foods that can damage tooth enamel.
  • Regular oral exams.
  • Not smoking or using tobacco products.
  • Consuming less sugar.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids.

Early identification of dental problems can minimize treatment and costs. People with chronic conditions need to make consistent preventive dental care a top priority.

Making Dental Appointments Less Stressful

Dentophobia is an extreme fear of going to the dentist, which is often linked to bad experiences with a dentist at an early age. It can be heightened by sights, sounds, and smells associated with the dentist’s office. Also, if you haven’t been to your dentist in a while, you may fear receiving bad news about your oral health.

Some statistics show that as many as 20 percent of people experience enough anxiety that they will visit the dentist only when it is absolutely necessary.

To combat this fear, find a dentist who understands how you feel. These dentists will:

  • Listen to your concerns, particularly your unique pain tolerance.
  • Explain what you will feel and for how long.
  • Frequently ask your permission to continue.
  • Give you a way to signal if you feel uncomfortable (raising a hand).
  • Make time for breaks if needed.

Things You Can Do

  • During the visit, take a friend or close relative with you who doesn’t fear dentists.
  • Bring noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds with music to the appointment.
  • See the dentist at a less busy time in the day, such as morning hours. There will be fewer people and fewer dental tools making noises that may trigger your anxiety.
  • While waiting, practice deep breathing exercises. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Take a look at our health and wellness blog for more articles about preventive care.