Geriatric Dental Care: What You Need to Know
Currently, geriatric dental care leaves something to be desired. Unfortunately, just over half (53%) of seniors have dental coverage. That coverage may be through Medicare, a retirement plan, or granted through an employer as a current employee or employee's spouse.
That lack of coverage is directly affecting seniors' dental care.
"Cost plays a role in dental decisions. One in five of the older adults polled said they had delayed getting dental care, or gone without it, in the past two years," Futurity writes.
The good news is that there are ways for dentists and seniors to prioritize geriatric dental care and make it that much more accessible and affordable. For example, low-cost, mobile clinics that were previously unable to drill teeth, pull teeth, and fill cavities now have greater options.
Now, dental hygienists and dentists nationwide can use silver diamine fluoride in lieu of more traditional methods. Applying silver diamine fluoride directly onto teeth stops decay in its tracks, Kaiser Health News (KHN) reports.
Seniors can also take advantage of available resources, like toothwisdom.org and eldercare.acl.gov, to find low-cost or free dental services.
What's the big deal about senior dental care? What is it, why is it important, and how is it different from your average dental care? Find the answers to these questions and more below.
Geriatric Dental Care: An Overview
According to dentalcare.com, "Geriatric dentistry, or Gerodontology, is the delivery of dental care to older adults involving the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of problems associated with normal aging and age-related diseases as part of an interdisciplinary team with other health care professionals."
This form of dentistry is in high demand. Unfortunately, many seniors wait for serious symptoms to manifest before going to the dentist. It is average for dentists to treat geriatric patients with at least one or two medical conditions seriously affecting their dental health.
Once they do take the leap and make an appointment, their condition is often serious enough to merit multiple visits and treatments.
Plus, seniors are more vulnerable to tooth decay, root decay, and oral health problems. That is because some seniors may struggle with day-to-day tasks, like tooth brushing and flossing.
Either these tasks pose physical challenges -- seniors may find them more challenging due to shaking or arthritis -- or it is difficult for seniors to remember to routinely keep up on them.
Family members can help by prioritizing geriatric dental care just like they would the physical and mental well-being of their loved ones.
For example, if you make it a habit to send flowers and cards or to regularly drop off groceries, it is also helpful to remind senior relatives to brush and floss their teeth and to volunteer to drive them to dentist appointments.
Basic Daily Oral Hygiene
Geriatric dental care requires much of the same upkeep as everyday, routine dental care -- and then some. For the healthiest possible gums and teeth, here are a few things seniors can do:
- Seniors need to brush and floss every day, even if they need a reminder or two. You wouldn't visit an aging loved one's apartment or community and say nothing if they continually neglect to take out the trash. If your aging parent, friend, or loved one regularly fails to brush his or her teeth, help them set up reminders on their phone, voice assistant, or in an old-fashioned planner or appointment book.
- If flossing is presenting a physical challenge, talk to dentists about alternatives, like using electric-powered water flossers.
- Thoroughly clean partial or full dentures. Without regular cleaning, food debris and particles may get stuck up underneath dentures. That lingering food can increase bacteria and lead to infection. Keep dentures as clean as possible by rinsing them off after meals, brushing them daily, and soaking them in a dentist-approved cleaning solution overnight. Avoid using bleach and stiff-bristle toothbrushes on your dentures.
- Set up regular appointments with a dentist you trust. Just like it is important to work with a doctor you trust, it is important to establish a good rapport with a dentist as well. That way, if you are feeling pain or anything unusual, you can trust your dentist to take your concerns seriously. Once you find a quality dentist, schedule biannual cleanings at a minimum, and consult your dentist whenever there is a problem.
- Be extra mindful about fluoride. "Older individuals have an increased risk for cavities, making it doubly important for you to make sure fluoride is a part of your daily routine," Colgate writes. Make sure you are using a toothpaste with fluoride. Some mouthwashes and rinses contain fluoride as well.
- Drink more water. Aging Americans are more likely to suffer from dry mouth. Dry mouth, in turn, increases the likelihood of gum disease, plaque, mouth sores, and tooth decay. Combat dry mouth by drinking plenty of water, chewing sugar-free gum, and limiting your alcohol intake.
Watch For Root Decay
According to the International Journal of Dentistry, "Nearly half of all individuals aged 75 and older have root caries" or suffer from root decay. Unfortunately, root decay is not easily detectable like other conditions commonly associated with aging, like hair loss. Many seniors may experience significant root decay or debilitating root caries before they are even aware of the problem.
Some of the only physical symptoms of root decay or root caries include a matte appearance -- healthy gums are pink with a slight sheen -- or gums receding notably enough to expose the roots of the teeth.
Most often, seniors discover root decay through routine dental exams. A dentist or dental hygienist will catch wind of the problem when they are probing the teeth and gums and notice especially soft tissue at the roots. For that reason alone, regular exams are an important part of geriatric dental care.
Prevent Gum Disease
Gum disease is progressive. The best course of action is to take measures to prevent it in the first place -- or to treat it in its early stages.
To prevent gum disease, brush and floss regularly. Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and foods with a lot of sugar. Eat a diet rich in fibrous foods that stimulate saliva production and prevent bacteria build-up. These foods include carrots, apples, and celery. Notify your dentist of any discomfort or potential problems.
For example, if you visit an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor for ear pain and they cannot find a source for the pain, the pain may be coming from your teeth. Cavities, tooth grinding, and impacted teeth may cause pain in one ear.
The early stage of gum disease may be referred to as gingivitis. With gingivitis, the infection affects your gums only. You may notice red, swollen, and inflamed gums. Your gums may bleed when you floss or brush your teeth.
At this stage, it is possible to treat gingivitis with more thorough brushing and flossing, fluoride rinses, and professional dental cleaning.
The latter stages of gingivitis are called periodontal disease. "Periodontal disease refers to the infection and inflammation of the gums, ligaments, or bone that surround your teeth, and can vary in severity," Colgate writes. Severe stages may require multiple treatments, possibly even including surgery.
Tips For Dentures
In addition to thoroughly cleaning your dentures and soaking them overnight, there are other important steps to take to ensure your dentures do not negatively impact your geriatric dental care. Here are just a few:
- Take your dentures out every night. "Dental experts recommend taking your dentures out for 6 to 8 hours a day to allow the tissues of your mouth to heal from any soreness or irritation that may have occurred throughout the day," Healthgrades explains.
- Don't ignore loose or ill-fitting dentures. If your dentures do not fit, they can rub up against your gums and mouth, leading to painful sores and infection. Talk to a cosmetic dentist about your options. The dentist may recommend applying dentures with an adhesive or refitting them and getting new dentures altogether.
- Chop up crunchy fruits and vegetables, and avoid sticky foods. Foods like apples and corn on the cob can ruin your dentures. Cut the corn kernels off of the cob, and slice apples into small, bite-sized pieces. Avoid foods like taffy and caramel altogether.
What to Look Out For
The fact remains that aging Americans are more vulnerable to dental and oral health problems. Often, it is through no particular fault of their own. It is a byproduct of aging. Just like pregnant women's gums are more likely to be inflamed thanks to hormonal fluctuations and nearly two-thirds (60%) to three-quarters of pregnant women will show symptoms of gingivitis, seniors have increased rates of dry mouth, periodontitis, and root caries.
To stay on top of these conditions, keep an eye out for:
- Any numbness in your mouth or a numb tongue.
- Any lumps or growths.
- Uncomfortable spots in or around your mouth, or in your throat.
- Mouth- or jaw-related swelling.
- Difficulty swallowing or chewing.
The average retirement community consults with dietitians to keep their residents healthy. Seniors visit their doctors regularly to monitor their health. Geriatric dental care should be no different. Schedule routine dental appointments or, at a minimum, see a dentist at the first sign that something is amiss. Refer to the guidelines above for more details.
When to See A Dentist
You may think that cavities are most prevalent in young children, like those in kindergarten, who eat a ton of candy and sugary snacks, like brownies and cookies. That is not true. In fact, adults -- and particularly aging adults -- are the most likely to get cavities. If you have brown or black spots on your teeth, tooth pain, or your tooth is especially sensitive to hot and cold, see a dentist right away.
Sensitive teeth may also indicate problems with your gums. A dentist will help you determine if there is a quick fix, like switching toothpaste, or a more complex solution, like a soft tissue graft.
See your dentist if you have pain, loose teeth, or if you or your loved one is exhibiting signs of dementia. Geriatric dental care is an essential part of aging American's overall health. Learn more below.
Other Health Problems You Need to Know About
As stated, geriatric dental care is not just about your gums and your teeth. The health of your gums and teeth is directly related to your overall health. Some doctors even refer to your teeth as a "window to your health."
If you have toothy decay, plaque, tartar build-up, and/or oral health problems, that may increase your likelihood of the following health complications:
- Endocarditis and cardiovascular disease. Poor oral health means there is a lot of bacteria present in your mouth. Unfortunately, it doesn't always stay there. Bacteria can travel from your mouth, into your bloodstream, and ultimately end up in major organs, like your heart.
- Pneumonia. Just like bacteria from your mouth can ultimately end up in your heart, it can end up in your lungs as well. When that happens, you may experience symptoms of pneumonia and other respiratory conditions.
- Osteoporosis. In the case of osteoporosis, it works the opposite way. Osteoporosis weakens bones and bone material, making patients more susceptible to tooth loss.
Think of your mouth like the foundation of a house. After learning that asbestos leads to serious health problems, like lung disease and cancer, contractors prioritized asbestos removal to keep people healthy. Now that you know that excess bacteria in your mouth can cause heart problems and pneumonia, prioritize dental exams and geriatric dental care to prevent even greater health problems.
Just about 20% of Americans 65 and up do not have natural teeth. Thanks to old age, tooth loss, and root decay, their teeth have been entirely replaced by implants or dentures. This is far from the only option, however.
Keep your natural teeth and stay healthy by scheduling regular dental exams, brushing and flossing every day, drinking more water, and cleaning partial dentures. Call your dentist at the first sign of any trouble. That includes sensitive teeth, sore gums, and pain.