Our mouth, teeth and gums go through many changes as we age. Knowing what to expect and how to deal with these changes can make all the difference in your oral health and lifestyle.
The majority of people over 50 have been affected by some form of gum (periodontal) disease and tooth-root decay. Having few or no teeth at all is a distressing reality for many Irish adults, as they get older. More than 40% of those over 65 years old have no teeth.
Many cavities in older persons occur around the edges of old fillings. That’s why brushing with a fluoride toothpaste, flossing, good nutrition, and regular dental visits are more important than ever.
Changes in Your Mouth
- Teeth may seem to darken with age because changes in dentin (material beneath enamel) may cause teeth to appear slightly darker.
- Plaque (sticky, colourless layer of bacteria that causes cavities) may build up faster and in greater amounts.
- Teeth may become more dry and brittle, and more likely to crack or break under normal chewing pressure.
- Years of chewing may wear down tooth enamel, and teeth may become more sensitive and prone to breakage.
- Gums may recede due to periodontal disease and too forceful tooth brushing. This increases the risk of tooth-root decay – a serious problem.
- Mouth dryness from reduced saliva flow is a side effect of many medications, but not a normal part of aging. Saliva rinses and protects the mouth and teeth, removing food and decay-causing acid.
- Old fillings may fracture or leak around the edges, allowing decay-causing bacteria to accumulate in the tiny crevices.
- Oral cancer — although it is a rare condition and may be occurring less frequently in Ireland it occurs more frequently in older individuals. Oral cancer can affect the lips, gum tissues, cheek lining, tongue and the hard or soft palate.
- Dentures — losing all one’s natural teeth is still a common but needless experience for a high percentage of elderly adults in Ireland so taking proper care of dentures is a very important routine for maintaining a healthy mouth.
What Older Adults Can Do
- Be aware that poor diet, poor oral hygiene, medical diseases, some medications and treatments and ill-fitting dentures or bridges can increase the chances for tooth decay and gum disease.
- Fluoride is just as important in preventing cavities in adults as in children. Use a fluoride toothpaste and drink plenty of tap water.
- Reduce excessive alcohol intake and try to give up smoking as both of these together increase the risk for oral cancer in older persons.
- Widening the handle of the toothbrush with a sponge or adhesive tape may help. Some like to use an electric toothbrush, a commercial floss holder or other inter dental cleaning device. Your dentist or hygienist can advise on the use of these products.
What Your Dentist Can Do
- See your dentist at the first signs of trouble: pain, tenderness or numbness; cavities; gums that are red, swollen, tender, bleed easily or pus between gums and teeth; any sore that bleeds easily and persists longer than two weeks; a swelling, lump, rough spot, crust or small-eroded area anywhere in or about the mouth or neck; white or red patches in the mouth or on the lips; difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving the jaw or tongue; a change in the way the teeth fit together.
- During regular checkups, your dentist should look for these and other oral health problems.
- Tell your dentist about any other health problems and medications you are taking to ensure the most appropriate dental treatments. Your dentist may also need to consult with your doctor.
- Ask your dentist for tips if you have trouble holding a toothbrush or floss.
- For dry mouth, your dentist might recommend sugar-free sweets or gum to stimulate salvia flow. These should only be used in moderation. Alternatively an artificial saliva substitute, oral rinses or gels may be appropriate. Your local pharmacy will advise of availability.
Caring for Dentures
- Dentures should be identity marked preferably at manufacturing stage for older persons. This is to guard against loss during any period of hospitalization or residential care. Temporary marking is also possible with an alcohol based marker pen.
- Denture should be removed at night before retiring and stored in water in a labeled container.
- Dentures should be rinsed after each meal and debris removed with a soft brush, liquid soap and water over a container or sink half filled with water to prevent breakages if dropped.
- Plastic Dentures can be soaked in a peroxide cleanser such as steradent for 15 minutes or in a hypochlorite cleanser much as Milton for 20 minutes in lukewarm water. Rinse thoroughly afterwards.
- These days keeping your natural teeth for a lifetime is a choice you can make by taking special care of them, eating a balanced diet and visiting your dentist regularly.