But those simple steps become more challenging as we age. And that’s a problem, because cavities, gum disease, and oral cancer are all more common later in life, says Judith Jones, DDS, a professor of dentistry at Boston University and an expert spokesperson for the American Dental Association (ADA).
“People think cavities are just for kids, but older adults have as much or more tooth decay as young kids,” Jones says.
A report from the CDC shows rates of oral cancer peak after age 60. And yet nearly 40% of older adults haven’t seen a dentist in the past year. That percentage holds even for people who are experiencing pain due to a tooth or gum issue.
“Good oral hygiene is often overlooked as a critical component of good general health,” adds Karen Becerra, DDS, dental director of the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center.
Doctors have long known that a link exists between periodontal (gum) disease and heart disease. But some of the latest research suggests gum disease may actually promote heart problems. Gum disease leads to persistent “low-grade” inflammation, which may cause or contribute to the buildup of plaque within your arteries. Your risk for stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and some forms of arthritis may also rise as a result of gum disease.
Saliva is an essential part of the ongoing “re-mineralization” process that keeps your teeth strong and healthy, Jones says. But a lot of common prescription medications cause dry mouth, which can promote tooth decay and other oral health issues. Making matters worse, our salivary glands don’t work as well as we get older—making dry mouth even more likely. Drinking extra water can help. So can dry mouth rinses and some nighttime products.
Osteoporosis, arthritis, and other muscle- or movement-related health issues can make brushing a challenge for seniors, Jones says. “An electric toothbrush can be a huge help,” she says. She also urges caregivers to make sure their loved ones can manage brushing (and flossing) their own teeth—and to find them help if they can’t.
“Brushing is far more important than any mouthwash,” Jones says. You can’t substitute a rinse for 4 minutes of thorough brushing and expect to keep your teeth strong. But especially later in life when tooth decay becomes a more common and serious issue, a fluoridated rinse and toothpaste can help protect your teeth, she says. (Yes, there are some worries about fluoride in drinking water. But experts say the health concerns are exaggerated.)
Both calcium and vitamin D are nutrients many older adults may not be getting enough of. Shortages of either could play a role in the development of osteoporosis, which in turn could raise your risk for tooth loss, Jones says. While you want to be sure you’re getting both calcium and D in your diet, you also want to watch your sugar intake, she says. Sugar rots your teeth. Combining too much sugar with poor brushing habits can quickly lead to big-time trouble.
For all the reasons mentioned above, annual dentist visits—ideally one every 6 months—are a great way to nip potentially serious oral health issues in the bud, Jones says. Even if you wear dentures, a visit to your dentist can ensure they fit properly, which can save you from painful mouth sores or gum disease. Also, your dentist will check for any oral cancers. “Oral cancers are relatively uncommon, but their incidence peaks during a person’s 60s,” she says.
“Poor oral health is a growing public health problem as baby boomers retire, people live longer, and access to affordable dental care becomes more difficult,” Becerra says. Both she and Jones emphasize the links between a healthy mouth and overall health, and both stress the importance of lobbying employers, public health officials, and other care providers for better dental coverage later in life. “If we don’t do something to improve access and engage seniors in prevention strategies, more and more older Americans will be treated in emergency rooms rather than in dental offices or clinics,” Becerra says.