SENIORS & DENTAL HEALTH
As we get older, we all notice the effects of aging wrinkles,
greying hair and a variety of aches and pains that we didn't have
before. Our mouth also is affected by advancing age, undergoing both
subtle and sometimes pronounced changes. Understanding these changes,
and what can be done about them, is important to maintaining good
Getting a Grip on Your Toothbrush and Floss
Things to Remember...
Your Changing Mouth
Why do my teeth seem darker?
One of the changes you may notice as you grow older is that it's
harder to keep your teeth clean and white. This is because the sticky,
colorless layer of bacteria, called plaque, can build up faster and
in greater amounts as we age. Changes in dentin, the bone-like tissue
that is under your enamel, may also cause your teeth to appear slightly
Why does my mouth feel dry?
Reduced saliva flow that results in a dry mouth is a common problem
among older adults. It is caused by certain medical disorders and
is often a side effect of medications such as antihistamines, decongestants,
pain killers and diuretics. Some of the common problems associated
with dry mouth include a constant sore throat, burning sensation,
problems speaking, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness or dry nasal
passages. Left untreated, dry mouth can damage your teeth. Without
adequate saliva to lubricate your mouth, wash away food, and neutralize
the acids produced by plaque, extensive cavities can form.
Your dentist can recommend various methods to restore moisture.
Sugar-free candy or gum stimulates saliva flow, and moisture can
be replaced by using artificial saliva and oral rinses.
Why am I losing my sense of taste?
You may find that you are losing your appetite due to a change
in your sense of taste. Several factors can cause this change. Besides
an age-related decrease in the sense of taste and smell, certain
diseases, medications and dentures can contribute to a decrease in
your sense of taste.
Aren't cavities just kid's stuff?
No. Changes that occur with aging make cavities an adult problem,
too. Recession of the gums away from the teeth, combined with an
increased incidence of gum disease, can expose tooth roots to plaque.
Tooth roots are covered with cementum, a softer tissue than enamel.
They are susceptible to decay and are more sensitive to touch and
to hot and cold. The majority of people over age 50 have tooth-root
Decay around the edges, or margins, of fillings is also common
to older adults. Because many older adults lacked benefits of fluoride
and modern preventive dental care when they were growing up, they
often have a number of dental fillings. Over the years, these fillings
may weaken and tend to fracture and leak around the edges. Bacteria
accumulate in these tiny crevices causing acid to build up which
leads to decay.
Should I be concerned about gum disease?
Yes. A majority of adults are affected by some form of gum (periodontal)
disease. It is a major cause of tooth loss among adults. The culprit
that causes such destruction is bacteria which thrive on the sugars
and starches in foods you eat. Bacteria create toxins which irritate
the gums. Slowly, and often without pain, the gums detach from the
teeth, and if the condition is not treated, the supporting bone may
dissolve, causing the teeth to become loose. This condition may require
surgical treatment of the gums or removal of teeth.
Ill-fitting dentures or bridges, poor diets, poor oral hygiene,
other medical diseases, and even some medications can increase the
severity of gum disease. Signs to look for include gums that are
red, swollen, tender, bleed easily or have pus between the gums and
teeth. Other signs include changes in the fit of partial dentures,
any change in the way your teeth fit together, gums that have receded
from the teeth or natural teeth which are loose.
Every Tooth Counts
Every tooth in your mouth plays an important role in speaking,
chewing and in maintaining proper alignment of other teeth. Tooth
loss isn't an inevitable part of aging, but if you do lose teeth,
they must be replaced for your mouth to function properly. A number
of options can be used to replace missing teeth.
How can I fill the gap?
A bridge a device used to replace missing teeth
attaches artificial teeth to adjacent natural teeth, called abutment
teeth. Bridges can be applied either permanently (fixed bridges),
or they can be removable.
Fixed bridges are applied by either placing crowns on the abutment
teeth to provide support for artificial teeth or by
bonding the artificial teeth directly to the abutment teeth. Removable
bridges are attached to the teeth by either metal clasps or by precision
What about dentures?
When most or all of your teeth have been lost, dentures can restore
your eating and speaking ability, as well as improve your appearance.
Today's dentures are much more effective and cosmetically appealing
than they were in the past. A fitting for dentures can take place
immediately after your natural teeth are removed or after the extraction
sites have healed. Full dentures replace all of the natural teeth,
and partial dentures replace only some of the natural teeth.
Are there other options?
An increasingly successful option to dentures and bridges is dental
implants. Instead of attaching artificial teeth to existing teeth,
as bridges do, implants attach directly to the jaw bone or under
the gum tissues. Because implants attach so securely, they look and
feel natural, and offer better chewing ability. Candidates for implants
must be in good health and have enough bone with which to secure
the implant. Your dentist can let you know if implants are an option
Preventing Dental Problems
Every time you eat food containing sugars and starches, the bacteria
in plaque produce acids which attack your tooth enamel for 20 minutes
or more. After repeated acid attacks, the tooth enamel begins to
break down and a cavity forms. By limiting the number of times you
snack and choosing nutritious foods from the five main food groups
(vegetables; fruits; dairy; breads/cereals/grains; meat/poultry/fish),
you can help save your teeth from decay. A balanced diet, plus brushing
and cleaning between your teeth, can keep your mouth healthier.
Choosing Oral Care Products
Even savvy shoppers can be baffled by the seemingly endless variety
of dental care products. Choose products that carry the American
Dental Association Seal of Acceptance an important symbol
of a dental product's safety and effectiveness. Oral care products
that may carry the ADA Seal include toothpaste, manual and electric
toothbrushes, floss and other interdental cleaning aids, mouthrinses
and oral irrigators.
Thorough brushing twice a day, and cleaning between the teeth
daily with floss or other interdental cleaners, remove plaque. Keep
these tips in mind when brushing your teeth. Use a soft-bristled
toothbrush. Place the brush at a 45-degree angle to the teeth and
use a gentle tooth-wide, back-and-forth motion. Remember to clean
the inside teeth surfaces where plaque deposits are heavy, and clean
the back teeth and tongue. Replace your brush when the bristles become
frayed or worn about every three to four months.
Cleaning between teeth
Floss and other interdental cleaners remove plaque from between
the teeth and under the gumline, areas where the toothbrush can't
reach. If you haven't been in the habit, it's never too late to start.
When flossing, keep in mind these tips. Gently ease the floss
between the teeth and gumline, never snap it. Form a "c" against
the sides of both teeth and gently rub the floss up and down the
tooth, moving it from under the gumline to the top of the tooth.
Establish a regular pattern of flossing and remember to floss the
backside of the last teeth. It's especially important for bridge
wearers to floss around the abutment teeth. These teeth must remain
healthy if the bridge is to function properly.
If you use interdental cleaners, ask your dentist how to use them
properly, to avoid injuring your gums.
The importance of fluoride
Recent studies show that fluoride is just as effective in preventing
cavities in adults as it is in children. You should use a fluoride
toothpaste that carries the ADA Seal of Acceptance. Fluoride mouthrinses
provide additional benefits and can reduce decay even more than brushing
and flossing alone. The American Dental Association recommends that
adults use a fluoride mouthrinse daily.
Denture care and maintenance
Cleaning your dentures daily helps remove stains and plaque that
build up and irritate your gums. First, rinse your dentures. Then,
use a soft-bristled denture brush and a denture-cleaning agent. Brush
the denture thoroughly, but avoid damaging the plastic parts or metal
Only your dentist is qualified to diagnose your oral health condition
and fit and adjust your dentures. Do-it-yourself kits and use of
dental adhesives, without a dentist's advice, can result in increased
irritation, bone loss and even infections. Although your dentures
were made to fit precisely, they can become loose due to naturally
occurring changes in your gums and bones. Your dentist should periodically
check your dentures for proper fit.
The Importance of Dental Visits
Regular dental visits are important, regardless of whether or
not you have your natural teeth. Checking the condition of your teeth
is just one of the many functions your dentist performs.
Why isn't brushing enough?
Although daily brushing and flossing help remove plaque and early
tartar formation, once tartar has hardened, it can only be removed
by a dental professional. Some people form tartar faster than others
and may need to have their teeth cleaned more often.
What else happens in a dental examination?
Besides finding and treating existing dental problems, your dentist
also looks for signs of other health problems such as oral cancer.
Many oral cancers are treatable if they are discovered early. So,
alert your dentist to any sores, swellings or discolorations that
you find on your tongue, lips, cheek, throat, jaw bone or salivary
glands. Because the majority of oral cancers occur in people over
the age of 45, regular dental checkups are important. In addition,
other medical conditions often have symptoms that first appear in
Are there other ways I can improve my smile?
Looking good continues to be important as we grow older, and a
number of new cosmetic dental procedures can help you improve your
smile. These new techniques are not just for younger people
many are options that can benefit you.
Bleaching whitens stained teeth. Bonding is a technique that "paints"
tooth-colored materials onto the tooth to cover stains, to rebuild
chipped or cracked teeth and to close gaps. Veneers are tooth-colored
materials that fit over the teeth much like a false fingernail.
Ask your dentist what procedures would be right for you.
Getting a Grip on Your Toothbrush and Floss
If you have dexterity problems or a physical disability, you may
find it difficult to hold onto your toothbrush or dental floss. This
can be solved by using a few simple "home remedies" or devices listed
- Use a wide elastic band to attach the brush to your hand.
- Enlarge the brush handle with a sponge, rubber ball or bicycle
handle grip. Also try winding an elastic bandage or adhesive tape
around the handle.
- Lengthen the handle with a piece of wood or plastic such as a
ruler, popsicle stick or tongue depressor.
- Tie floss into a loop for easier handling.
- Use an electric toothbrush or commercial floss holder.
Things to Remember...
Although our mouth goes through many changes as we age, the power
to avoid dental decay and gum disease is within our grasp.
Contrary to popular belief, cavities are a common problem among
Tooth loss isn't inevitable, but if you do lose some or all of
your teeth, a number of options can be used to replace them.
Be sure to tell your dentist about any illnesses you have or any
medications that you are taking including those you purchase
over the counter.
Copyright © American Dental Association