Dental Care for Seniors

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As you age, you may experience significant changes in your dental health.  Practicing good oral hygiene and receiving regular dental care from a dentist and hygienist plays an important role in the health and well-being of older adults, and can help you avoid many of the serious dental challenges seniors often face as they age.

As you age, you will experience changes in your teeth and supporting tissues.  The tissues in your mouth, like all your other body tissues, change as you age.  Soft tissues, such as the gums and cheeks, loose their ability to stretch, and the muscles in your face become soft and weak.  The amount of saliva in your mouth may also be reduced.  All this combines to make chewing more difficult, and your mouth may be more easily irritated and heal more slowly than it did when you were younger.

Changes in your teeth primarily involve the nerve tissue and blood vessels found in the pulp.  In younger people, the nerves of the teeth are extremely responsive to pain and temperature.  As you age, your dental pulp will diminish, and there will be less nerve tissue and fewer blood vessels to supply your teeth with the resources they need to remain healthy.  This causes teeth to become brittle, and makes it easier for them to be broken or chipped.  On the bright side, the reduced nerve tissue means that you will experience little or no pain if one of your teeth does fracture.

The other changes to your teeth involve the wearing away of tooth enamel.  Teeth wear down due to the grinding action of chewing, making the enamel thinner.  In more severe cases, the enamel covering your tooth may be completely worn away, leaving the dentin, a softer part of the tooth, exposed.  Dentin is more susceptible to acidic oral fluids, and can be easily dissolved.  This also makes it easier for your teeth to be chipped, broken, or otherwise damaged.

Many older adults also need to receive some kind of dental restoration.  Most commonly, this restoration takes the form of a complete or partial denture.  If you wear a denture, it is important that your appliance is comfortable and functions well.  Your level of comfort and oral function largely depends on the ability of your remaining bone ridges and supporting tissue to provide the support necessary for your denture.

When the teeth in your mouth are removed, the remaining bone continuously shrinks to a smaller size.  Gum tissue covering this ridge is more easily irritated, because it becomes increasingly thin.  Thus, rigid dentures become less adapted to the mouth as time goes on.  This makes it both painful and difficult to chew, and increases the risk of damage to your mouth from an ill-fitting denture.

If you wear dentures, you will need to care for them properly to ensure that they remain functional.  Denture care is necessary for good oral hygiene.  Here are some tips on denture care:

  • Remove your dentures after you eat and rinse them with warm water. You should also rinse your mouth thoroughly at this time.
  • Scrub your dentures with a stiff toothbrush to remove calculus. You can use toothpaste or soap for this.  Commercial denture cleaning solutions alone may not be enough to clean your appliance.
  • Avoid using do-it-yourself liners. These can be rough and irritating, and may harbor bacteria and food debris.

As an older adult, you should also be aware of the effect medications and other health conditions may have on your oral and overall health.  Evidence of a disease or other medical problem occurring elsewhere in the body may be noted in the mouth, and the medications used to treat some of these diseases may have an effect on the condition of your mouth.  Diseases to be aware of include disorders of the blood system (anemia), diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.  These diseases may be accompanied by inflammation and a reduced healing capacity of the gums, an increase in periodontal disease, and an inability of the gums and bone ridges to tolerate dentures.

Take care to follow a thorough, at-home oral hygiene regimen that includes brushing and flossing.  You may also want to consider using an oral aid, such as:

  • Mouth rinse – You may experience a decrease in saliva due to age or the effects of a medication, making it easier for food particles to adhere to your teeth and gums. Rinse with warm water or salt water to dislodge the particles.  This will also help if you have difficulty brushing, though it will not replace the action of brushing in keeping your mouth clean.  If you use a mouth wash, you may want to dilute it with water so that it does not irritate the dry tissues of your mouth.
  • Wiping with gauze – If it becomes impossible for you to brush or rinse without assistance, wiping the teeth and gums with a wet piece of gauze may remove some of the debris from around the teeth and gums.
  • Electrical Tooth Brush – These tools have proved to be effective in cleaning teeth. Electric toothbrushes have a large handle, making them easy to hold, and the movement of the brush compensates for those with limited dexterity in their hands.
  • Water Pick – Water picks are extremely helpful in removing particle from between the teeth. If you have periodontal pockets, be very careful when using this tool, as it may force food particles deeper into the pockets and cause severe irritation.
  • Interdental Cleaner – This tool is helpful to clean between the teeth, especially when the gums have receded and created large spaces between the teeth.
  • Oral Lubricant – This can ease some of the problems caused by dry mouth by reducing the irritation caused by dentures rubbing on underlying tissue or cheeks. There are several prescription medications available to substitute for or stimulate the production of saliva in your mouth.

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