Oral health is important throughout one's life, and its importance in older adults is often not addressed. Older adults today are keeping their teeth longer, thanks to modern day dental medicine and using their dental insurances to visit dentists in their youth. When age-related changes start to affect a patient’s teeth and gums, certain decisions need to be made regarding that individual's dentition.
Some common oral health related conditions found in the elderly are:
- Dry mouth, which may be caused by certain medications. Talk to your physician to find out if this may be happening to you or your loved one, your dentist can present several solutions to this problem.
- Disease related changes may include gum recession and decay along the roots of teeth.
- Improper oral hygiene can lead to increased decay.
- Advanced periodontal disease is associated with loosening of teeth, pain, and infection.
While it is important to visit the dentist every six months, a routine daily oral health care plan (brushing, tongue cleaning, cleaning between teeth using aids) performed twice daily is essential.
Some elderly patients may be highly dependent on their care givers to perform daily oral health tasks.
While most medical conditions are addressed early on, dental treatment is not always high on the priority list of geriatric care. In fact, it really needs to be.
Often patients' children or caregivers will ask me, "How do I know if I need to bring my chronically ill parent/patient to the dentist? If it's worth the trip or if anything can really be done given their condition?"
All of these are legitimate concerns, and there is no blanket reply as every situation is different.
It is always a good idea to have a medical professional look inside the geriatric patient’s mouth every 4-6 months to note changes.
Warning Signs of Oral Health Issues
Some signs that can be easily evaluated by caregivers should raise red flags and need the attention of a dentist right away. That does not mean that all other signs must be ignored just because they are not on the following list.
The list includes but is not limited to the following :
- Very loose teeth that may fall off on their own causing the patient to swallow or aspirate them. They can get lodged in the patient’s throat, which is very dangerous.
- Sharp or broken teeth that can cause injury to the lips, cheek, or tongue. This is especially important if the patient is on blood thinners, as this can cause excessive bleeding.
- Any swelling of lips, gums, and cheeks, or presence of white or yellow pus, is often indicative of an infection and must be treated right away.
- Sharp or broken edges of dentures (complete or partial dentures) or hooks of dentures that do not engage any natural remaining tooth (in the case that the tooth has broken off). This may cause pain/ bleeding or lacerate supporting tissues of the oral cavity.
- Difficulty chewing food and difficulty swallowing.
- Any report of pain in the mouth.
- Very small dentures that contain only one or two teeth should be removed from the mouth and evaluated.
All of these situations should to be addressed immediately by a dentist.
An oral health appointment does not need to be long or tedious. Most dentists are well aware of the extensive medical conditions and chronic illness of their geriatric patients. However, it may be useful to inquire if the dentist has any experience working on medically-compromised older adults, or has received any additional training in geriatric dental medicine or special care dentistry. Dentists may also opt to make a house call in some special situations.
As a caregiver, it is essential that daily oral health practices are followed to prevent unforeseen situations like those previously mentioned. It is while performing oral hygiene for the patient, that caregivers are most likely to notice changes in the oral cavity. It is also important to contact a dentist right away if any of the situations on the list arise, or in case of any doubt.
Ignoring one’s teeth and oral health means ignoring one’s overall health.
Studies have linked poor quality of life and poor nutritional intake to poor oral health among the elderly. Create an oral health plan for your loved one. Contact a dentist should you have any questions.