You may think that as an adult you don't have to worry about cavities anymore -- but dental cavities aren't just child's play! As we entered the new millennium, it was discovered that seniors were actually getting more dental cavities than children. Today, children and seniors are still the two highest at-risk groups for tooth decay.
Aging puts us at greater risk for dental problems -- the wearing away of tooth enamel, receding gums and loss of jawbone are signs that our mouths are aging along with our bodies.
Your grandparents could probably tell you that, in their youth, most senior citizens had missing teeth. Many lost their teeth to dental disease, and a tooth extraction was a common treatment for dental problems.
With current dental technology, we're relying less on old-fashioned dentistry and more on modern dental procedures to restore our smiles. That's great news to seniors, who are keeping their teeth longer. Now for the bad news -- anyone with natural teeth can get dental cavities. And the longer we have our teeth, the more we expose them to the elements that can cause tooth decay.
The Risk Factors
Unfortunately, geriatric teeth are less able to handle the normal wear and tear of those in younger generations. There are several reasons why seniors may be prone to more dental cavities:
Lack of Fluoride -- Most of our nation's seniors didn't have the benefits of community water fluoridation while growing up. And with the popularity of bottled water today, seniors may still not be getting the fluoride they need. Fluoride strengthens teeth and helps prevent tooth decay.
Arthritis -- Those who suffer from arthritis, or other medical conditions, may have a hard time gripping a toothbrush or floss, making it difficult to practice daily oral hygiene.
Gum Disease -- Over 95% of seniors have receding gums, exposing the roots of teeth and making them vulnerable to the same dental diseases that affect the tooth's crown. Root decay is becoming much more common among seniors.
Dry Mouth -- Dry mouth is often a side effect of medications or health problems often associated with seniors. Saliva is needed to wash away food particles and neutralize the acid that promotes tooth decay. When our mouths are dry, our teeth become more susceptible to cavities.
Diet -- Aging may cause our diet to change. Seniors often lean towards softer foods, which don't always have the nutrients you need for healthy teeth. A diet heavy in carbohydrates and sugar also contributes to dental cavities.
Assisted Living -- Although assisted living centers are designed to help our loved ones get the care they need, oral hygiene may fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, a lack of individual attention may keep seniors from maintaining their smiles.
Finances -- When on a fixed income, oral health care may not be a priority. Some seniors can't afford to pay for dental products or professional dental care.
Look Grandma -- No Dental Cavities!
There are several ways seniors can improve their chances of staying dental cavity-free. A diet low in sugar and high in calcium promotes tooth health. If you aren't getting enough fluoride, try using fluoride toothpastes, mouth rinses or tablets. Drinking water, sucking on sugar-free candy or chewing sugarless gum promotes saliva production and reduces dry mouth.
For seniors with dexterity problems, wrap tape or an elastic bandage around the toothbrush. If a wider grip is needed, you can even try taping a tennis ball, sponge or rubber bicycle grip to the handle. An electric toothbrush may also be helpful for those who cannot maneuver a manual toothbrush easily. And daily flossing should not be forgotten, either -- floss holders and waxed floss may make it easier for seniors to continue their oral hygiene routine.
Because of the special dental needs of seniors, regular dental visits are necessary to maintain their oral health. Dentists use this time to check for the dental problems that affect older patients, including gum disease, root decay and oral cancer. If a senior you know is living in a nursing home, arrange for them to receive oral care and continue with their dental appointments. If transporting them to the dental office is impossible, try finding a dentist who can arrange in-house care at their facility.
Now that you have the chance to keep your teeth for a lifetime, you should take advantage of it. Taking the right steps to maintain your smile will help you remain cavity-free, so you can truly experience what your golden years have to offer!