Our teeth and gums change as we grow older. Years of wear and tear take a toll, often causing thinning enamel and broken or lost teeth. Teeth with repairs such as crowns, fillings, and root canals are less hardy. As gums recede, sensitive areas of the teeth not covered by enamel may be exposed.
Some common health conditions, such as diabetes and acid reflux, can cause tooth decay and gum disease. It can be harder to brush and floss effectively if we have dementia, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, or another condition that causes a loss of muscle control. Some medications older adults commonly take, such as diuretics, antidepressants, pain medications, and drugs to treat high blood pressure might cause dry mouth, which can lead to tooth decay.
Medical science is learning more about the connection between oral health and overall health. Already, poor oral health has been linked to:
Tooth loss, painful teeth, and gum problems make it harder to eat a nutritious diet. Many of the most nutritious foods—vegetables, fruits, nuts, and meat—are hard to chew, so a senior might turn to processed foods that are high in salt and sugar. This makes it hard to get the nutrients they need.
An October 2018 study published by the American Heart Association showed that people who have gum disease do not respond as well to medications designed to keep their blood pressure at a safe level. Said study author Dr. Davide Pietropaoli, “Physicians should pay close attention to patients’ oral health, particularly those receiving treatment for hypertension, and urge those with signs of periodontal disease to seek dental care.”
Columbia University researchers reported that brushing, flossing, and regular dental visits slow the progression of atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) to a significant degree. An earlier study from the American Heart Association found that people who have their teeth cleaned regularly have a 24% lower risk of heart attack and 13% lower risk of stroke.
Tooth loss and gum disease have also been linked to an increased risk of dementia. New York University researchers found that gum disease may contribute to brain inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. University of Florida researchers showed that oral bacteria from poor mouth hygiene is linked to brain tissue degeneration. A March 2019 study published by the American Geriatric Society found that even taking into account other lifestyle factors, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and inactivity, people with gum disease have a higher risk of dementia.
Modern dentistry has come a long way in helping seniors retain a healthy smile. Restorations, implants, and periodontal care yield great results, and for patients who have lost most or all of their teeth, modern dentures can be quite comfortable.
During the coronavirus pandemic, dentists are following safety precautions outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).