Oral diseases of teeth and gums, are common among our oldest Americans who grew up without the benefit of community water fluoridation and other fluoride products. Being disabled, homebound, or institutionalized also increases the risk of poor oral health.
Most older Americans do not have dental insurance. Often these benefits are lost when they retire. The situation may be worse for older women, who generally have lower incomes and may never have had dental insurance. Medicaid may fund dental care for low income and disabled elderly in some states, but reimbursements for this care are low. Medicare was not designed to provide routine dental care
Denture wearers or patients with missing teeth, also may choose soft foods and avoid fresh fruits and vegetables. Periodontal (gum) disease or tooth decay (cavities) are the most frequent causes of tooth loss.
Severity of periodontal (Gum) disease increases with age. According to American Dental Association 23 percent of 65- to 74-year-olds have severe disease. Overall men are more likely than women to have more severe gum disease.
Oral and pharyngeal (throat) cancers are primarily diagnosed in the elderly. Prognosis is poor where a five-year survival rate for white patients is 56 percent and for African American patients is 34 percent.
Most older Americans take both prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Over 400 commonly used medications can cause a reduction of saliva, a dry mouth and increases the risk for oral disease including cancer. Saliva contains antimicrobial components as well as minerals that help rebuild tooth enamel attacked by decay-causing bacteria. If medications produce a dry mouth, ask your doctor if there are other drugs that can be substituted. If dry mouth cannot be avoided, drink plenty of water, chew sugarless gum, and avoid tobacco and alcohol
What You Can Do to Maintain Your Oral Health
- Drink fluoridated water and use fluoride toothpaste; fluoride provides protection against dental decay at all ages.
- Practice good oral hygiene. Careful tooth brushing and flossing to reduce dental plaque can help prevent periodontal disease.
- See your dentist on a regular basis. Professional care helps to maintain the overall health of the teeth and mouth, and provides for early detection of pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions. A dental visit is also important in those who only have dentures
- Avoid tobacco. Smokers have seven times the risk of developing periodontal disease compared to non-smokers. Tobacco used in any form—cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless (spit) tobacco—increases the risk for periodontal (gum) disease, oral and throat cancers, and oral fungal infection (candidiasis). Spit tobacco containing sugar also increases the risk of cavities.
- Limit alcohol. Drinking a high amount of alcoholic beverages is a risk factor for oral and throat cancers. Alcohol and tobacco used together are the primary risk factors for these cancers.
- A dental exam is important prior to having chemotherapy or radiation to the head or neck. These therapies can damage or destroy oral tissues and can result in severe irritation of the oral tissues and mouth ulcers, loss of salivary function, rampant tooth decay, and destruction of bone.
- A decrease in taste may not be signs of aging, but could be a sign of poor dental care.