The Importance of Oral Health for Seniors
There are several reasons why seniors may have worse oral health than their children and why they need more oral healthcare in later years.
- Many seniors grew up at a time when water fluoridation and dental fluoride treatments were not common
- Many never had dental insurance
- Those who had dental insurance may have lost it when they retired
All of these factors can lead to poor oral health which can cause infection and affect general health, wellness and the ability to get good nutrition. Here is what you need to know about promoting good oral health and encouraging your loved one to care for their teeth and mouth.
The dangers of too much bacteria
Poor oral health can lead to too much bacteria in the mouth. If that bacteria travels into other parts of the body it can lead to infections and other health conditions including pneumonia, stomach problems, and cardiovascular disease. In some cases, bacteria may cause infections that may make dementia worse. Too much bacteria can be especially dangerous for seniors whose health is frail and/or who have compromised immune systems. They can get sicker faster than those who have a baseline of good health.
Clinical studies have shown that good oral health care decreased the amount of bacteria and infection-causing pathogens that were breathed in, reducing the risk of pneumonia. Good oral health may also improve swallowing in seniors.
The Canadian Society of Intestinal Research reported on a study that surveyed the health of 52,000 male doctors. It found that men with a “history of gum disease had a 63% greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer relative to men without periodontal disease”. That’s because when gum disease is left untreated it can result in high levels of bacteria that can then travel to the intestines.
When bacteria from the mouth travels through the bloodstream it can infect others parts of the body, including the inner lining of the heart, called the endocardium. This can cause Endocarditis, an infection of the heart’s inner lining.
Complications with dementia
Any infection can make dementia worse, increasing confusion and delirium. As bacteria travels from the mouth to other parts of the body it can cause stomach, heart, lung and bladder infections that make dementia symptoms worse.
Practicing good oral health controls the bacteria in the mouth and prevents it from spreading to other parts of the body.
Poor oral health can lead to tooth loss
Losing one’s teeth can significantly impact nutrition. A surprising number of older Americans are missing some or all of their teeth. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that about “25 percent of adults 60 years old and older no longer have any natural teeth”. People without their natural teeth may:
- Eat less
- Avoid fresh fruits and vegetables
- Choose soft foods that have lower nutritional value
Poor nutrition causes its own adverse side effects in seniors and is to be avoided. Malnutrition can lead to lethargy, disease, and physical and mental decay. Dentures are not as good for chewing fresh fruits and vegetables and can result in seniors choosing less nutritious foods.
To the extent that seniors practice good oral health they protect their gums which in turn help to keep the teeth in place.
Gum disease causes tooth loss
Periodontal, or gum, disease is a frequent cause of tooth loss. The CDC estimates that about 23 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have severe gum disease, causing their teeth to loosen or fall out. Gum disease can also endanger the roots of the teeth. If the gums recede it can expose the roots of the teeth, causing them to decay rapidly. Regular dental check-ups can detect periodontal disease and treat it in its early stages to prevent tooth loss.
Good oral health for seniors
There are several practices that will help to ensure good oral health for seniors. Depending upon the senior’s cognitive levels, he or she may need assistance to carry them out.
Daily brushing and flossing
If your loved one has dementia, you may need to help them remember how to put toothpaste on the toothbrush and brush their teeth. Both natural teeth and dentures need to be cleaned regularly to control bacteria. As dementia advances, caregivers may need to brush the senior’s teeth. A dentist can provide instruction on how best to do that.
Dentures should be worn every day for as long as possible, with a four hour break – usually at night. They must also be cleaned regularly and thoroughly with a specific denture cleanser. Soaking them in water is not enough to properly clean them. If the dentures become loose they should be replaced. If the senior has dementia, wearing dentures, and keeping track of them, will become more challenging as the disease progresses. The senior should be encouraged to wear the dentures for as long as possible. Once he or she stops wearing them, nutrition will change as well.
Regular dentist visits
Annual dentist visits are important for seniors. Dentists can check for oral health including the gums and teeth. They can address issues of decay and loose teeth. They can also check for disease and oral and neck cancers. Visiting a dentist once a year is important preventive care for seniors.
If you visit the dentist with your loved one, ask the following questions:
- What is the state of your loved one’s overall oral health?
- Are there any indications of decay, loose teeth, or gum disease?
- Are there any signs of illness or disease elsewhere in the body that may show symptoms in the mouth?
- How are the dentures fitting and do they need repair or replacement?
- How can I help my loved one to care for their teeth? Do you have any suggestions?
Good oral health contributes to good physical health for seniors and should be carefully attended to. Your dentist can help you to ensure that your loved one takes care of his or her teeth and can give you good advice on care plans.
If you or your family member is considering in-home care as part of a plan to age in place, contact Family Matters In-Home Care today for a free consultation. Our team is dedicated to supporting your family and helping older adults enjoy life in the comfort of their own home for as long as possible.
Some of the services offered by Family Matter In-Home Care include: Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care, Bed & Wheelchair Transfer Assistance, Companionship, Housekeeping & Meal Preparation, Personal Care, Recovery Care, and Transportation.