Aging and Dental Care

Dental care becomes more important as you age. According to the Harvard Medical School, older people have higher rates of gum disease, dental decay, oral cancer and other conditions.

While seniors are high risk for dental issues, many don’t have access to the resources they need. The Kaiser Family Foundation notes that 65 percent of Medicare beneficiaries do not have any kind of dental coverage. And almost half of beneficiaries haven’t seen a dentist in the past year.

Seniors who are at high risk for oral health conditions but don’t have the resources to receive dental care are more likely to create a breeding ground for worse issues.

Advancing age puts many seniors at risk for several oral health problems, such as:
  • Darkened teeth
  • Dry mouth
  • Diminished sense of taste
  • Gum disease
  • Root decay
  • Tooth loss
  • Uneven jawbone
  • Denture-induced stomatitis
  • Thrush

Many of these oral health conditions can cause more than discomfort. If left unchecked, they can grow into serious and sometimes life-threatening problems. Therefore, it is important for seniors to not only take care of their teeth but recognize potential concerns.

Conditions of the Mouth

Seniors who are economically disadvantaged, disabled or live in nursing homes are most likely to have poor oral health, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Minorities and homebound seniors also fall into this group.

While people who fall into these groups are particularly at risk, there are several common dental health conditions that all older adults can keep an eye out for.

Common Oral Problems in Seniors
Untreated Tooth Decay:
As many as one in five seniors have untreated tooth decay, which spans from cavities and other tooth conditions.
Gum Disease:
Two thirds of adults 65 or older have gum disease.
Tooth Loss:
Highly common in seniors, with more than a quarter of adults 75 or older having lost all their teeth.
Oral Cancer:
There are several different mouth cancers that become more prevalent as you age.
Chronic Disease:
Seniors with chronic diseases are more likely to develop oral health conditions.
Source: CDC

As with other health conditions, catching dental issues early and receiving treatment can prevent them from evolving into more serious problems. Preventive care like brushing teeth, flossing and learning how to identify symptoms can also make a big difference.

While conditions like oral cancer may be the most serious, common afflictions like gum disease can cause further health problems and significant discomfort if they are not dealt with in the early stages.

Signs of Unhealthy Teeth and Gums

Gum disease results from poor toothbrushing and flossing habits, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Not taking care of your gums and teeth regularly can cause a buildup of plaque and bacteria.

This can lead to sore, bleeding gums and, eventually, trouble chewing and tooth loss. There are several symptoms to keep an eye on that could signal unhealthy gums and teeth.

Signs and Symptoms of Gum Disease
  • Bad breath
  • Tender or swollen gums
  • Painful chewing
  • Loose or sensitive teeth
  • Receding gums

A trip to the dentist can identify and diagnose gum disease, as well as offer treatment for it. It’s important to get ahead of gum disease so it doesn’t worsen or lead to other issues. Some symptoms of gum disease could also be a sign of a more serious condition like oral cancer.

Stages of gum disease

Medical Conditions Affecting the Oral Health of Seniors

Oral health can be heavily tied to the rest of your health. In fact, there are many health conditions common in seniors that can lead to dental issues like gum disease. Seniors who have these health problems should be on the lookout for how their dental health is being affected as well.

Conditions That Can Affect Oral Health
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Heart Disease
  • COPD
Source: CDC

Many of these medical conditions are especially prevalent among seniors. According to the CDC, a quarter of adults who are 65 or older have diabetes.

Medications That Impact the Mouth

Oftentimes, seniors are prescribed several medications at once which, in turn, can cause oral health issues such as dry mouth.

According to the School of Dentistry of USC, there are more than 1,000 medications associated with oral dryness, and they are the most common cause of dry mouth.

Dy mouth occurs when medications affect the production of saliva. There are many types of drugs that can cause dry mouth, but some are more commonly prescribed than others.

Common Medications That Can Cause Dry Mouth
  • Antibiotics
  • Antidepressants
  • Antihistamines
  • Decongestants
  • Diuretics
  • Opioids

The potential for dry mouth increases with the number of medications being taken, making it a common problem for seniors who must balance different drugs for different conditions.

When to See Your Dentist

You should see your dentist if you start to experience or notice changes in your mouth. This can include dryness from medications, pain or other issues. Dentists can offer treatment for many different conditions, from dry mouth to gum disease.

The longer you put off a dentist visit, the more time your condition has to worsen or evolve into something else. You may also have regular habits, like smoking, that can continuously worsen your oral health.

Oral Hygiene Tips for Seniors

There are many benefits to having good oral hygiene. It not only lowers your risk of developing oral health problems, but also prevents you from worsening other health issues. Good oral hygiene can also ward off pain and soreness in the mouth, which can make eating food easier.

Routine oral care can help prevent cavities, gum disease and other issues that can become painful and cause health problems. There are several steps seniors can take to ensure they maintain good and healthy oral hygiene.

1. Brush and Floss Your Teeth Daily

Brushing and flossing your teeth regularly can help clear bacteria from your teeth and gums, preventing infections, gum disease and other issues.

It also keeps your teeth healthy, making chewing easier and preventing loose teeth or pain. Brushing and flossing should be a daily activity, not an occasional task. Regular use of fluoride and mouthwash are also beneficial to oral health.

2. Watch for Changes in Your Mouth

Make sure to keep note of any changes going on in your mouth. This can range from increased gum soreness to a dried-out mouth that isn’t improving. Any changes could be a sign that there is some sort of oral health condition starting to form, like gum disease or dry mouth.

Keeping an eye out for changes can help you stay ahead of potentially serious health issues before they arise. Visit a dentist to check out any changes to your oral health that you can’t explain or didn’t expect.

3. See Your Dentist Regularly

Regular dental checkups are also good for preventive care. Seeing your dentist even just a couple times a year for a cleaning appointment can keep your teeth and gums as healthy and pain-free as possible.

Even if you don’t have dental coverage, you can receive free dental care from local dental schools. Your local United Way may also be able to direct you to low-cost or free dental care options.

4. Healthy Habits Are Key

Building healthy habits is key to dental health. Getting into a routine of flossing and brushing your teeth daily can help prevent many issues. Breaking bad habits can also make a huge difference. This includes smoking or eating lots of sugary and unhealthy food that can cause bacteria buildups and cavities. Getting into the routine of regular dental checkups can also be beneficial.

5. Don’t Ignore Dry Mouth

If you are experiencing dry mouth that isn’t going away, you may want to see a dentist. Dry mouth is often caused by taking one or more medications, so it is likely that it will not go away on its own.

Aside from discomfort, dry mouth could also be a symptom of a more serious condition. While it may be caused by something as simple as medication, it’s important to keep an eye on.

Dos and Don'ts of Denture Care

Dentures are common among older adults as many seniors start to lose their teeth. There are different types of dentures available — some replace a few lost teeth while others are for those who have lost all their teeth.

Dentures are useful to a lot of seniors, helping them continue to eat different kinds of food and talk clearly. If you have dentures, caring for them can be just as important to your health.

According to the National Library of Medicine, dentures that aren’t cleaned properly can stain regularly, create bad breath and cause swollen gums.

Another serious problem oftentimes caused by dirty dentures is bacteria buildup inside the mouth, which can lead to other health issues.

Dos of Denture Care
  • Clean and brush your dentures every day
  • Leave your dentures in water or a solution overnight
  • Take out of your mouth before you go to sleep
  • Cut food into small pieces
  • Avoid crunchy or sticky food
Don'ts of Denture Care
  • Don’t avoid cleaning your dentures
  • Don’t leave your dentures in while you sleep
  • Don’t keep your dentures out in the open at night
  • Don’t eat large pieces of food or food that could get easily stuck

Paying for Dental Care

Original Medicare does not cover dental care. This means, even if you are a Medicare beneficiary, you will be on your own when it comes to paying for dentist visits and other kinds of dental care.

Dental coverage is often available through Medicare Advantage plans, which are provided by private insurers and include everything covered under Original Medicare plus additional perks and benefits. Medicare Advantage plans are available regionally and the level of dental coverage varies by plan.

There are some other resources available for people who can’t afford dental care. Clinical trials and dental schools are an easy way to receive free care. Your local United Way or state health department may also be able to direct you to low-cost resources in your area.

Last Modified: January 10, 2022

7 Cited Research Articles

  1. National Library of Medicine. (2021, November 1). Dentures. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/dentures.html
  2. U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2021, May 5). Older Adult Oral Health. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/basics/adult-oral-health/adult_older.htm
  3. National Institute on Aging. (2020, March 13). Taking Care of Your Teeth and Mouth. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/taking-care-your-teeth-and-mouth
  4. USC Ostrow School of Dentistry. (2019, October 9). Dry Mouth: Medications and Their Effect on Saliva. Retrieved from https://ostrowon.usc.edu/medications-that-cause-dry-mouth/
  5. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2019, March 13). Drilling Down on Dental Coverage and Costs for Medicare Beneficiaries. Retrieved from https://www.kff.org/medicare/issue-brief/drilling-down-on-dental-coverage-and-costs-for-medicare-beneficiaries
  6. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. (2018, October). Periodontal Disease. Retrieved from https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/gum-disease
  7. Harvard Medical School. (2010, January 1). The Aging Mouth – and How to Keep it Younger. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-aging-mouth-and-how-to-keep-it-younger
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