Modern health care has increased the chances of people living longer and many of them may be retaining their natural teeth for longer periods as compared to those in previous years. The downside is that this could increase the risk of certain oral health problems. However, this risk may be reduced by looking after your teeth and gums.[1]

Oral health has been linked with overall health and wellbeing. It's important for families and carers of seniors to know how to help brush their teeth, clean their dentures and maintain their healthy dental habits.[1]

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Why is senior dental care so important?

Oral health is important at all stages of life, but age is known to be a contributing factor for many oral health problems. This is especially the case for some seniors who are less able to take care of their teeth and gums themselves due to problems with mobility, cognitive impairment or other issues.[1]

Missing teeth are a problem for many seniors, which can affect their ability to eat and get the nutrition they need. According to the 2013 National Dental Telephone Interview Survey, more than 19% of Australians aged 65 years and over had lost all of their teeth, and those who were dentate had more than 10 missing teeth on average. Many seniors use dentures to help restore the function and appearance of their smiles.[2]

The Australian National Survey of Adult Oral Health 2004–2006 found that more than half of seniors (53.4%) had moderate to severe gum disease.[2] This condition has been linked with health problems in other parts of the body, such as an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and aspiration pneumonia.[1] Looking after your gums is recommended as a part of routine oral care.

What are the warning signs of dental problems?

Early intervention can improve the chances of timely management of oral health problems, so it's important for seniors and their carers or relatives to know the possible warning signs to look out for. Signs that someone may need to see a dentist include:[1]

  • Bad breath – bad breath is not a 'normal' part of ageing, and may be a sign of gum disease or another condition.
  • Dry mouth – a dry mouth and tongue, thick saliva or difficulty swallowing can make it challenging to eat food. It may also increase the risk of gum disease and other oral infections. Dry mouth is one of the common side-effect of certain medications.
  • Red, swollen or bleeding gums – these are some of the common symptoms of gingivitis, the early stage of gum disease.
  • Painful or sensitive teeth – this could be due to many reasons such as a damaged or infected tooth, or the gum may be infected.
  • Tendency to avoid certain foods – if someone has recently started avoiding certain foods, this may be a warning sign of some problem with chewing or swallowing of those foods.
  • Loose or damaged teeth, crowns or dentures – it is recommended that any problems with teeth, dentures or dental restorations should be seen by a dentist as soon as possible.

See more warning signs to look out for when caring for an ageing loved one.

How can I help?

If you're caring for someone who has challenges in taking care of their own teeth and gums, it's important that you help them to maintain good oral hygiene routine every day. Dentists recommend:[1]

  • Brushing teeth twice daily preferably using a fluoride toothpaste
  • Flossing between teeth at least once a day
  • Cleaning dentures twice a day using mild cleanser
  • Drinking recommended amount of fluids
  • Cutting down on sugary snacks and drinks
  • Avoiding tobacco and limiting alcohol consumption[3]
  • Having regular dental check-ups

Regular oral health assessments can give dentists the chance to spot problems while they may still be at an early stage and easier to treat, as compared to possible pain and discomfort later. If you need advice about cleaning the teeth of someone with dementia or you have other questions about senior dental health, talk to your local Bupa dentist.

References

[1] SA Health. Oral health care domain - Care of older people toolkit [Online] 2016 [Accessed October 2018] Available from: www.sahealth.sa.gov.au

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW): Chrisopoulos S, Harford JE & Ellershaw A 2016. Oral health and dental care in Australia: key facts and figures 2015. Cat. no. DEN 229. Canberra: AIHW.

[3] Australian Dental Association. Lifestyle Risks (65+) [Online] 2017 [Accessed October 2018] Available from: www.ada.org.au