While it’s possible to keep the teeth and gums healthy for your entire life, many people find that their oral health declines with age. About 68% of adults over the age of 65 have some form of gum disease, and over a quarter of adults over the age of 75 have complete tooth loss. Furthermore, seniors are more likely to be diagnosed with oral cancer or have chronic disease that puts them at risk for oral health issues. (For example, diabetes raises the risk of gum disease.) Caregivers and loved ones of seniors need to be aware of the risks so that they can keep their smiles healthy and help them enjoy the best quality of life during their autumn years.

How Aging Affects Oral Health

As the body gets older, bones become less dense and strong, tissues tend to grow thinner, and the immune system often weakens considerably. All of these factors can leave the mouth more vulnerable to a variety of issues. For example, a weakened immune system is less capable of fighting off infections, so you’ll be more likely to develop gum disease as a result of bacteria building up and causing inflammation of the gum tissue.

Some of the most common oral health issues that people tend to notice as they age include:

• Dry Mouth: The body tends to produce less saliva as you age. Since saliva helps wash away food particles and bacteria, less saliva tends to leave the mouth more vulnerable to decay and infection.

• Gum Disease: The gums recede as you get older, exposing the roots of your teeth. This makes it easy for bacteria to accumulate where it can cause inflammation.

• Cavities: As a result of dry mouth and natural wear and tear, the teeth tend to be more susceptible to cavities with age.

• Oral Cancer: Almost anyone can get oral cancer, but the risk does tend to increase with age.

• Tooth Loss: Many older patients end up losing multiple teeth. Shockingly, missing teeth can actually shorten your lifespan by up to 10 years by limiting what you can eat and making it more difficult to maintain good nutrition.

How Seniors Can Protect Oral Health

Whether you are a senior looking to protect your own smile or have a senior in your life that you’re taking care of, it’s important to be proactive in protecting the teeth and gums. Brushing and flossing are more important than ever and should be done at least twice day. Sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages should be avoided as much as possible. Dental checkups should be held every six months to catch small oral health issues early on; more frequent appointments may be needed if gum disease or another persistent health problem is already present.

If you’ve lost any teeth, you should have them replaced as soon as possible. In many cases, the best solution for missing teeth is dental implants, which are artificial roots inserted into the jawbone and topped with crowns, bridges, or dentures. Dental implants have an advantage over other tooth replacements because they have chewing power that’s almost on par with your real teeth, so there aren’t any restrictions on what you can eat with them.

Finally, if you notice any tooth pain, red or swollen gums, oral sores, discolored patches in the mouth, persistent bad breath, or loose teeth, call your dentist right away. All of these symptoms are signs of a dental emergency, and you need to act quickly to protect the mouth against the worst of the effects.

About the Author

Dr. Wayne Barker is a diplomate member of the American College of Prosthodontics and American Dental Association, and he is a fellow of the American Board of Prosthodontics. He works with patients of all ages, and for his older patients at Jacksonville Complete Dentistry, he offers dental implants, periodontal therapy, and other services that can help protect an aging mouth.

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