A Guide to Dental Care for Seniors
While most adults expect their teeth to last a lifetime, as you age, natural changes to both your oral health and overall physical health increase your risk of developing certain dental conditions.
But with the right dental care, you can prevent oral health problems, keep your teeth healthy, and, most importantly, keep your teeth forever.
Here’s a look at the most common oral health concerns for people aged 55+, along with tips to help manage your oral health and prevent these dental complications.
How Teeth Change as You Age
As you age, the nerves in your teeth can become smaller, so you may not feel any pain or discomfort caused by cavities and other oral health problems.
Everyday wear and tear also affects your teeth and gums over time. Biting, chewing, and grinding wear down tooth enamel—the hard outer layer of teeth—and flatten the parts of teeth used to bite and chew.
Your gums will also recede from wear and tear over time, exposing the surface of the root, which is not protected by tooth enamel and is more vulnerable to decay and sensitivity.
Along with changes due to wear and tear, saliva production also slows down with age, which can lead to oral health problems caused by dry mouth.
Common Oral Health Concerns as You Age
Here are some of the most common oral health problems that can occur due to the changes to your teeth that come with age.
As we age, the risk of getting gum disease increases. Gum disease is a particularly big concern since plaque can build up on teeth over time, causing the surrounding gum tissues to become infected.
Gingivitis is the first stage of gum disease and is characterized by gum inflammation—red, swollen, or bleeding gums.
Periodontitis is the advanced stage of gum disease and includes bone inflammation around your teeth, which can lead to bone loss and eventual tooth loss.
If you’ve had any teeth removed over the years and you have yet to replace your missing teeth, your surrounding teeth can shift and create areas where food and bacteria collect in the gum line. And when bacteria is left to infect the gums, inflammation and gum disease can progress.
Tooth loss is a common oral health issue among seniors that has long been associated with ageing. But it doesn’t have to be.
Smoking and poor dental hygiene are two of the major contributors to tooth loss as we age. But with a healthy lifestyle, a good oral health routine, and regular visits to your dentist, you can prevent tooth loss and keep your teeth in top shape.
Like many other dental concerns, the risk of oral cancer increases with age. And certain lifestyle factors, such as heavy tobacco and alcohol use, can further increase this risk. So it’s important to have regular oral cancer screenings during your dental checkups.
Tooth discolouration, or darkening of the teeth, is a natural part of ageing. Changes in dentin will lead to discolouration, as will a lifetime of stain-causing food and drink.
While some discolouration is normal, in some cases it can be preventable. Coffee, tea, soda, and tobacco products will discolour your teeth with stains, so avoiding these will help to prevent discolouration.
If you are unhappy with the colour of your teeth, speak with your dentist about teeth whitening or dental veneers for a whiter, brighter smile.
Several factors can cause tooth decay as you age, including dry mouth and gum recession. If your gums are receding, the exposed root surfaces will be vulnerable to tooth decay because the root surface is softer than the tooth enamel.
If decay reaches the nerve in the root, it can cause an infection and possibly lead to the tooth breaking off the root. Tooth decay can also start under dental fillings that are chipped, broken, or leaky.
Dry mouth in seniors is common due to the prevalence of health conditions that cause dry mouth. Dry mouth is also a common side effect of many prescription and non-prescription medications.
Saliva carries minerals and immune cells that help protect our teeth from the bacteria and acids that cause infections and cavities. So if you experience dry mouth, the reduced flow of saliva can lead to oral health problems.
How to Maintain your Teeth as You Get Older
To maintain good oral health as you age, here are best practices for how to take care of your teeth:
Maintain Regular Brushing and Flossing
Floss daily and brush at least twice a day, and preferably after every meal, with a soft toothbrush. Don’t brush too hard as this contributes to gums receding.
If you have trouble due to arthritis, speak with your dentist about dental aids to make brushing and flossing easier, such as electric toothbrushes and flossers, interdental cleaners, dental tape, and floss holders.
Also be sure to use fluoride toothpaste to strengthen your tooth enamel and consider using fluoride rinses and gels if you have a high risk for cavities, orthodontic decalcification, or crown and bridge work.
Since oral cancer is more common in older adults, try to quit smoking and avoid tobacco products to help reduce your risk of oral cancer.
Look Out for Changes to Your Mouth and Teeth
Pain isn’t usually an early symptom of oral cancer, so it’s important to keep an eye out for any changes to your teeth and mouth and visit your dentist if you notice anything different.
Be especially cautious of changes to your lips, throat, or tongue that last for more than two weeks.
Changes to look out for include:
- Red or white patches
- Lumps or thickened areas
- Swelling in your jaw
- Pain in one ear without hearing loss
- Numbness in your tongue or mouth
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving your tongue or jaw
Keep Up with Regular Visits to the Dentist
Regular visits to the dentist will help prevent these common oral health issues. Your dentist can identify and treat problems before they get worse. And professional dental cleanings will remove plaque and tartar from your teeth that lead to gum disease, and are difficult to remove at home.
Your dentist can also give you specific tips on how to maintain your oral health based on your needs and health conditions.
While our teeth change with age and become more susceptible to certain oral health problems, with the right dental care, it’s possible for your teeth to look great and last a lifetime.