When you think about keeping the older adult in your life healthy, several things come to mind. Getting routine checkups at the doctor’s, making sure they’re taking their medications, and maybe even hiring a home health aide. But one aspect of care often goes unaddressed: seniors’ dental health.
What’s happening in a person’s mouth may provide clues about their physical condition overall. That’s why, if you’re helping take care of an older adult, monitoring their teeth and gums is important. In fact, it’s equally as important as doing things like mitigating fall risks[1. “Preventing Falls Among Older Adults,” September 23, 2013, https://www.cdc.gov/Features/OlderAmericans/], or preventing strokes.[2. “Preventing a Stroke,” https://www.stroke.org/understand-stroke/preventing-stroke]
When Your Mouth Speaks, Do You Listen?
As with all of us, an older adult’s mouth can “speak” in much more than words. That’s because oral symptoms can actually be signs of more serious conditions. By examining your loved one’s mouth, a skilled dentist may be able to see signs of liver disease, eating disorders, nutritional deficiencies, anemia, diabetes, arthritis, HIV, osteoporosis, and autoimmune diseases.
The Mouth-Body Connection
Experts are now learning that dental health and body health are interrelated in ways they never imagined. For instance, there’s been shown to be a high correlation between heart disease and periodontal (gum) disease. They share many of the same risk factors, including smoking, obesity, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and stress. Severe gum disease has also been connected to an increase in strokes.
Periodontitis and chronic degenerative diseases like ulcerative colitis and lupus have risk factors in common as well. Then there are conditions that directly impact oral health, like diabetes. Because diabetics are often slow to heal, sores in the mouth don’t improve as quickly as they should. This frequently leads to infections and longer, more involved treatment before the patient sees any improvement.
How to Help an Older Adult’s Oral Health
There are many things you can do to help the older adult in your life protect their oral health. First, experts recommend brushing after every meal — not just twice a day. Second, there are prescription oral products, like toothpastes and rinses, which doctors and dentists can prescribe. These are most appropriate for patients who already have periodontal disease, or are at a high risk for it. Regular visits to a dental professional are also advised, of course. This should be done not only so the dentist can clean your loved one’s teeth, but so they can refit their dentures or make new ones as needed.
Ill-fitting dentures must be taken seriously because of the nutritional deficiencies that can result from them. The types of food your loved one can eat may become more limited because they have trouble or pain when chewing or swallowing. Large chunks of food can cause a person to choke, or can result in aspiration. Aspiration is when food is transferred to the lungs, which can lead to pneumonia. If your loved one has trouble communicating that their teeth are bothering them, watch for non-verbal signals. For example, wincing and favoring one side of the mouth when eating are common.
Seniors’ Dental Health may be the Secret to Vitality
The secret to vitality as we age may lie in the mouth — with seniors’ dental health. A few decades ago, half of seniors didn’t have all their natural teeth. But now, that figure is only 27% of those sixty-five and up. Instead of seeing tooth loss as an inevitable part of growing older, it is possible to sail into your golden years with a full set!
But whether your loved one has all their natural teeth or not, there is much you can do to protect their oral health (and thereby, their health in general). So if you’ve been putting off making that dentist appointment for them, don’t delay any longer! Getting their mouths and bodies feeling good will make them smile — and look great doing it!
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.