Seniors and Dental Health— How Medical Conditions Affect Your Teeth


As we get older, a lot of things about our bodies change. But what about our teeth? You might have noticed things changing in that regard as well, from seeing your teeth turn a little darker to having more issues every time you visit the dentist. Taking good care of your teeth matters at any age, but as we get older, good oral hygiene doesn’t stop with brushing and flossing. It takes more than that to keep your teeth healthy through your golden years.

Most of us tend to see taking care of our oral health as a chore. According to U.S. News and World Report, only about 30% of Americans actually floss their teeth on a daily basis. And a surprising 32% never floss at all! The situation is worse for older adults, as 45% of those aged 75 and older say they never bother to floss[1]. Those who show the poorest oral health include those who are economically disadvantaged, are of a racial or ethnic minority, or lack insurance[2]. Interestingly, according to Medicare Interactive, Medicare does not currently cover routine dental care, so many seniors on a fixed budget might not be able to afford going to the dentist, which can then allow small problems to blossom into big issues.

All of these issues can contribute to tooth loss. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, about 27% of seniors over the age of 65 don’t have any natural teeth remaining; most of them use dentures. Though dentures can be a wonderful asset, they can also be somewhat problematic, as studies have shown that chewing with dentures is up to 40% less efficient than chewing with natural teeth[3].

That can lead to nutrition deficits, which can exacerbate other health problems. The journal Federal Practitioner found that malnutrition, including the anemia, weight loss, and vitamin D deficiency that often accompany it, can increase the risk of falls. That’s just another excellent reason for seniors to wear a medical alert pendant at all times! Staying healthy, which includes keeping up with good dental health, can assist in fall prevention. 

Elderly Adults Might Notice These Dental Problems

What specific problems can you expect from your teeth as you get older? Despite brushing and flossing on a regular basis, some of these dental issues can gradually occur[4]:

·         Dry mouth. Reduced saliva flow can allow bits of food to sit in the mouth longer, potentially leading to cavities. Dry mouth might be the result of certain medications, health syndromes, or cancer treatments. Up to 30% of those age 65 and older have dry mouth, as well as 40% of those older than 80[5]. 

·         Gum disease. As plaque builds up on the teeth, gum disease can result. It is more common among those who smoke, have poor diets, certain diseases, or poor-fitting dentures or bridges. It often leads to tooth loss. According to the CDC, 68% of those aged 65 or older have some level of gum disease.

·         Root decay. As the gums recede from the teeth, the root of the tooth becomes exposed to the acids in food and drinks. Since the roots don’t have enamel to protect them, they can start to decay rather quickly. This can also lead to significant sensitivity to hot and cold[6].

·         Darker teeth. This can be caused by consuming foods and drinks that stain your teeth, but can also be caused by a thinning of the enamel over time, which allows the darker, yellower dentin underneath the enamel to show through.

·         An uneven jawbone. As you lose teeth, the other teeth in your mouth gradually move and shift into the open spaces. This can lead to an uneven bite.

·         Vanishing sense of taste. Senses decline gradually as we get older, due to diseases, medications, and the simple aging process. This can lead to poorer nutrition.

·         Infections. Ill-fitting dentures or poor dental hygiene can lead to this, such as buildup of fungus or development of thrush.

·         Difficulty in brushing. Those who have arthritis or other conditions that make brushing or flossing difficult can contribute to any of the problems listed above.

·         Oral cancer. This type of cancer is primarily diagnosed in older adults, with the median age at diagnosis of 62 years[7].  WebMD cautions that long-term smoking greatly increases the risk of oral cancer.

·         Cavities. Though it might seem like cavities are for kids, older adults can get them as well. The American Dental Association says 50% of those over the age of 75 have cavities in at least one tooth.  The CDC reports that 96% of Americans have at least one cavity over the course of their lifetime[8].

Many of these problems can easily lead to difficulty with eating. You might choose to eat softer foods, which might not be as nutritious as others, such as apples or carrots. Or you might be inclined to not eat at all. The risk of malnutrition rises, and you suffer the effects of that as well, such as becoming a significant fall risk. A medical alert system with fall detection is a very good way to help protect yourself against the consequences of taking a hard fall and suffering a serious injury that doesn’t get treated right away. Though it is a good idea to have a button alert no matter your dental situation, problems with your teeth makes it even more imperative to have that peace of mind at your fingertips.

Control Medical Conditions to Protect Your Teeth

Though it might seem like certain medical conditions have nothing to do with your teeth, you might be surprised. For instance, diabetes can cause problems that brushing and flossing alone can’t fix. When blood sugar rises, it does a wide variety of things to your body, including weakening the white blood cells. These cells fight infection in your body. If those cells are compromised, infections are more likely to take hold, including those in the mouth.

And if those blood sugar levels are higher in your blood than they should be, that means that the same thing is happening with your saliva. Since the bacteria in plaque use sugar for food, that means the bacteria can grow, and the plaque can get worse, leading to a higher risk of cavities and gum disease.

Speaking of gum disease, uncontrolled diabetes means that your gums can take longer to heal and be more prone to repeat infections even after treatment[9]. Diabetes can also lead to excessive dry mouth and thrush, which is an overgrowth of fungus that affects your mouth[10].

And if you happen to be a smoker, the habit combined with diabetes can spell disaster for your mouth. Those with diabetes who smoke are 20 times more likely to develop thrush or periodontal disease[11].

What does this all mean? If you have any chronic medical condition at all, talk with your doctor to make certain you are doing everything you can to control it. Talk to your dentist about the situation so they are aware that you might need extra oral care to compensate for the issues your chronic conditions could cause.

And remember that chronic medical conditions can lead to other problems that necessitate the comfort of a medical alert watch or pendant. For instance, uncontrolled blood sugar can lead to weakness, fainting, confusion, and other issues that can leave you quite vulnerable to injury, even in your own home. If you have a chronic medical condition, it’s even more important to have an emergency response solution that is just one button push away.

How to Take Proper Care of Your Teeth

Taking proper care of your teeth is essential, whether you have chronic conditions or not. There are some guidelines to follow that will help you avoid dental complications.

·         Brush your teeth at least twice every day. Use toothpaste that contains fluoride. If you don’t have fluoride in your drinking water, you might consider asking your doctor for a prescription toothpaste that has a higher fluoride content than what you can buy over the counter.

·         Floss your teeth at least once every day.

·         Rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash once or twice a day.

·         Consider using an anti-cavity fluoride rinse once a day.

·         Keep your dental visits. If you have your teeth, you might be asked to visit the dentist every six months or even every quarter. If you don’t have your teeth, the schedule might be once a year.

·         Keep up dental care the best way you can. For example, if you have arthritis and holding a typical toothbrush is hard for you, consider one with a larger handle for better maneuvering, or use an electric-powered toothbrush to help ensure your teeth are as clean as possible. You can also use dental flossing aids that help you get the floss between your teeth.

·         Keep up with all medications and treatments for the rest of your body. As mentioned earlier, chronic health conditions can make dental issues worse; to avoid this, keep those conditions under control by following your physician’s recommendations.

·         Stop smoking. Smoking has a negative effect on everything in your body, including your teeth. It increases your risk of oral cancer as well as other issues. And to make matters worse, those who smoke are 50% less likely to get dental care than those who don’t[12]. Never skip out on your appointments!

When to Contact Your Dentist

Sometimes you might need to see a dentist in between the routine visits. This is especially the case if you notice any of these problems[13]:

·         Loose or sensitive teeth or gums

·         Difficulty with tasting, chewing, and swallowing

·         Any recent changes in your mouth that you can’t explain

·         Any pain or discomfort in your mouth

·         Sores on the soft tissues of your mouth or your lips

·         Bleeding in your mouth

·         Lumps, bumps, or swelling in any area of your mouth

·         Dentures that suddenly don’t fit properly

Even if you no longer have teeth, you need to see the dentist anyway. Though a dentist is known for taking care of your teeth, they also take care of your gums and overall oral health. Going to see the dentist once a year is usually fine if you have no teeth, but talk to your dentist to be certain.

What if You Can’t Afford the Dentist?

Those who are on a fixed income, like many seniors are, might not be able to afford dental care. However, many dentists are aware of this and will offer reduced fees for the elderly or those who suffer from certain conditions. These programs can vary widely from one place to another, so contact your local dental society to find your local assistance program. You can also look into public health clinics or dental school clinics in your area, as many dental schools offer free or reduced cost dental care while they train tomorrow’s dental professionals.

As always, Alert1 wishes you health and safety!