Sometimes elderly persons can overlook dental hygiene due to a lack of affordable insurance, mobility issues, or misunderstanding the significance of good oral hygiene. October is National Dental Hygiene Month, which aims to raise awareness about the importance of good oral health, especially for older adults.
With nearly a quarter of the American population anticipated to be age 65 and older by 2060, it’s necessary to highlight the ways in which dental hygiene is important to the overall health of seniors.
Poor Oral Hygiene Can Lead to Health Risks for Seniors
Kristin Starkel, owner of Right at Home Norfolk, Nebraska, still works as a dental hygienist four days a week.
“I’ve been a hygienist for 15 years, and I love being able to interact with so many different people and help educate them about oral health,” says Starkel. “It’s very rewarding.”
Starkel has seen firsthand that poor oral hygiene can lead to a variety of health challenges for older adults.
“Periodontal disease, or inflammation of the gums, can increase a senior’s risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke and respiratory disease,” she says.
According to Starkel, periodontal disease is more common in elderly patients, with roughly 65% of them developing a serious gum infection at some point. In order to improve oral hygiene to prevent periodontal disease, Starkel recommends seeing a dental hygienist every three months instead of every six, brushing and flossing daily to control plaque, drinking as much water as possible, avoiding sugar-filled drinks (including soda), and limiting simple starches such as white bread.
Medications Taken by Seniors Can Impact Oral Health
Bradley Burket, D.M.D., M.D.
Bradley Burket, D.M.D., M.D., has a dental practice in the same building as Right at Home Central Oregon, which his wife, Julie Burket, owns. Dr. Burket has been practicing medicine and dentistry for over two decades, and has treated many elderly patients throughout his career. He notes that certain medications frequently prescribed to seniors can cause dry mouth, which often leads to other oral health issues.
“Dry mouth can cause tooth decay and periodontal disease, including the loss of bone support in the jaw,” says Dr. Burket. “This can expose the root structure and put older adults more at risk of developing an abscess, which, of course, can lead to cavities, root canals and even the extraction of teeth.”
If you are currently taking any prescription medications, Dr. Burket recommends talking to your physician and dentist about any side effects that may lead to dry mouth. If you have dry mouth, Dr. Burket suggests using a fluoride rinse, quitting smoking, and seeing a dental hygienist regularly to remove any calculus buildup on the teeth.
“Basically, we want to make sure that we’re brushing at least twice a day, flossing, cutting down on sugary foods and drinks, and going in for regular checkups,” he says.
Bring In Extra Help When You Need It
There are certain conditions that might make it more challenging to practice good oral hygiene. Arthritis can make it painful to hold a toothbrush, Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia can create irregularities in the approach to oral health, and those who have experienced a stroke or tremors can struggle to brush their teeth thoroughly. But both Starkel and Dr. Burket agree that with a little bit of planning and assistance from others, those who are living with chronic illnesses can maintain good oral hygiene.
“An electric toothbrush and a Waterpik® are great options for people who are struggling with their oral hygiene,” says Dr. Burket. “You can also always talk to the hygienist at your next appointment to create an individualized plan for your oral hygiene based on your challenges.”
“If you are a caregiver who helps an elderly loved one or client with their oral care, try to be patient and consistent with helping them brush their teeth,” says Starkel. “Create a regular routine for them. And don’t forget that if they wear dentures, there has to be a regular routine for cleaning them properly, as well.”
The bottom line is that developing and maintaining a regular oral hygiene routine is crucial to overall health and well-being, especially as we age.