Older Adults Keeping Teeth Longer, but Dental Diseases Still a Common Problem

SEATTLE -- Tooth loss was once thought to be an inevitable consequence of aging, but with proper care and attention, adults are keeping their teeth and their oral health intact.

"Teeth were meant to last a lifetime," said Max Anderson, DDS, vice president and dental director at Washington Dental Service and national oral health advisor for Delta Dental Plans Association. "Older adults face some additional challenges to oral health, but many of these can be overcome with a bit of extra vigilance and common sense."

Many older adults have already gotten the message. Thanks to advances in dentistry and an increased emphasis on prevention, the rate of toothless-ness has dropped 60 percent among adults aged 55-64 since 1960, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Despite these promising statistics, Anderson warns that there is still much room for improvement. "Poor oral health has serious consequences and it is still too common among older adults."

Not just a childhood problem, cavities are one of the oral health challenges that come with age. The bacteria that cause cavities tend to stick to the teeth around existing fillings and the roots of teeth that become exposed as gumlines recede with age. If left unchecked, these cavity-causing bacteria will accumulate and cause new cavities to form.

Oral bacteria are also the culprit in periodontal (gum) disease, another common dental illness among older adults. In its early stages, gums appear irritated and inflamed. As the disease progresses, pockets of infection form between teeth and gums, causing gum and bone loss and, eventually, tooth loss.

A condition known as dry mouth can exacerbate these conditions. Often a side effect of certain medications, dry mouth inhibits the body's ability to wash food away from teeth and neutralize decay-causing acids produced by oral plaque. Plaque sticks to teeth and leaves them vulnerable to cavities.

"Whatever your age, oral health is important. It affects some of the body's most essential functions including speech, chewing and swallowing. Studies have also demonstrated relationships between oral health and systemic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness and diabetes," said Anderson.

Anderson urges older adults to stick to a routine of good oral hygiene by brushing and flossing daily and setting up regular visits to the dentist to discuss oral health concerns and catch any problems early on before they become more difficult to treat.

Source: Washington Dental Service