Dental care for older people
Older age can bring a variety of dental health problems. Medical conditions that are more common in older age, such as arthritis in the hands and fingers, may make brushing or flossing teeth harder.
Oral health problems in older age include:
- Darkened teeth. Caused, to some extent, by changes in dentin, the bone like tissue that underlies the tooth enamel, and by a lifetime of consuming stain-causing foods and beverages.
- Dry mouth. Dry mouth is caused by reduced saliva flow, which can be a result of cancer treatments that use radiation to the head and neck area, as well as certain diseases, such as Sjögren's syndrome, and some medications.
- Diminished sense of taste. While advancing age impairs the sense of taste, diseases, medications and dentures can also contribute to this sensory loss.
- Root decay. This is caused by exposure of the tooth root to decay-causing acids. The tooth roots become exposed as gum tissue recedes from the tooth.
- Gum disease. Caused by plaque and made worse by food left in teeth, use of tobacco products, poor-fitting bridges and dentures, poor diets, and certain diseases, such as anaemia, cancer and diabetes. This is often a problem for older adults.
- Tooth loss. Gum disease is a leading cause of tooth loss.
- Uneven jawbone. This is caused by tooth loss.
- Denture-induced stomatitis. Ill-fitting dentures, poor dental hygiene or a build-up of the fungus Candida albicans cause this condition, which is inflammation of the tissue underlying a denture.
- Thrush. Diseases or medications that affect the immune system can trigger the overgrowth of the fungus Candida albicans in the mouth.
Oral hygiene tips for older people
Daily brushing and flossing of your natural teeth is essential for keeping them in good health. Plaque can build up quickly on the teeth of older people, especially if oral hygiene is neglected, and lead to tooth decay and gum disease.
To maintain good oral health it's important for all individuals, regardless of age, to:
- Brush at least twice a day with a fluoride-containing toothpaste
- Floss at least once a day
- Visit your dentist and hygienist regularly for cleaning and an oral examination
What older people can expect during a dental examination
Your dentist should conduct a thorough history and dental examination. Questions asked during your dental history should include:
- The approximate date of your last dental visit and reason for the visit
- If you have noticed any recent changes in your mouth
- If you have noticed any loose or sensitive teeth
- If you have noticed any difficulty tasting, chewing, or swallowing
- If you have any pain, discomfort, sores, or bleeding in your mouth
- If you have noticed any lumps, bumps, or swellings in your mouth
During your oral examination, your dentist may check the following: your face and neck (for skin discoloration, moles, sores); your bite (for any problems in how your teeth come together while opening and closing your mouth); your jaw (for signs of clicking and popping in the temporomandibular joint); your lymph nodes and salivary glands (for any sign of swelling or lumps); your inner cheeks (for infections, ulcers, traumatic injuries); your tongue and other interior surfaces, floor of the mouth, soft and hard palate, gum tissue (for signs of infection or oral cancer), and your teeth (for decay, condition of fillings, and cracks).
If you wear dentures or other appliances, your dentist will ask you a few questions about when you wear your dentures and when you take them out (if removable). He or she will also look for any irritation or problems in the areas in the mouth that the appliance touches, and examine the denture or appliance itself, looking for any worn or broken areas.