Responding to the lack of funding allocated to oral healthcare for older Australians in the recent federal budget, the NSW branch of the Australian Dental Association (ADA) has raised concerns about an increased risk of unnecessary pain and life-threatening conditions experienced by the elderly as a result of poor oral health.
With more than 60% of Australians aged over 75 suffering from gum disease and more than one in three having complete tooth loss, a shortage of sufficient oral healthcare for older Australians can have serious implications on their health and wellbeing.
In this article, we’re focusing on the importance of good oral health for people in their senior years, as well as how older Australians can maintain their oral hygiene in order to minimise their chance of running into dental health problems.
How do our teeth change as we get older?
As we age, our risk of developing certain oral health conditions increases. Many of these dental issues are easy to address or prevent, which is why it’s important for older Australians to visit their dentist regularly.
Here are some oral health conditions that may affect elderly people:
Dry Mouth: Certain medications, diseases or medical treatments such as radiation for cancer can increase your risk of developing dry mouth, as well as cavities or decay. Your dentist can assist you with treatment options and ways to retain moisture in the mouth.
Attrition: Attrition is the general ‘wear and tear’ of your teeth that’s inevitable after years of chewing and grinding. Over time, the protective layer of enamel covering the surface of the teeth starts to wear down, increasing the risk of cavities.
Oral diseases: Oral diseases can include serious conditions such as mouth cancer, as well as less serious illnesses such as oral thrush, which is caused by the growth of fungus in the mouth.
Gum disease: Also known as periodontal disease, gum disease is caused by a build-up of dental plaque. As gum disease is one of the major causes of tooth loss in adults, it’s important to continue practising good oral hygiene as we get older.
Root decay: As our gums begin to recede as we age, this can lead to the tooth root being exposed, leaving it vulnerable to acid attacks that can cause decay.
Sensitive teeth: Your tooth sensitivity can increase as you get older, due to receding gums exposing areas of the tooth that aren’t protected by enamel. If your sensitivity persists after trying an anti-sensitivity toothpaste, it’s important to see your dentist as this may be a sign of a more serious condition.
Oral Health Tips for Seniors
Keeping our teeth in optimal condition as we age means taking a little extra care to maintain good oral hygiene practices and stay on top of our dental health. Here are some of the ways that you can keep oral health issues at bay as you get older:
Visit your dentist regularly: Having your teeth and gums checked regularly by your dentist - even if you wear dentures - is an important step in identifying potential oral health problems and preventing existing issues from getting worse.
Brush and floss every day: The rule about toothbrushing is one thing that doesn’t change as we get older! You should continue to brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day and floss at least once a day.
Use an antibacterial mouthwash: An antibacterial mouthwash can help to reduce the build-up of dental plaque. You can also buy mouthwash products that are designed to help with dry mouth - talk to your dentist about the best mouthwash for you.
Brush with a fluoride toothpaste: As older people are at an increased risk of cavities, using a fluoride toothpaste or using a fluoride-based mouthwash can help to protect your teeth.
Quit smoking: If you smoke or chew tobacco, quitting is one of the best ways to improve your oral health. Tobacco is linked to an increased risk of mouth and throat cancer, as well as other serious conditions. Talk to your doctor about the most effective way to quit smoking.
Limit your sugar intake: While you don’t need to cut out sugary treats altogether, it’s a good idea to monitor your sugar intake to reduce your risk of tooth decay and cavities.
Stay hydrated: If you take medication that causes dry mouth, it’s important to drink plenty of water. Other tips include chewing sugar-free gum and avoiding alcohol which can dehydrate the body.
Look after your dentures: It’s important to take care of your dentures by following the instructions provided to you by your dentist. An annual check-up is recommended for long-term denture wearers, but you should also see your dentist if any problems with your dentures arise.
Supporting elderly relatives to take care of their oral health
If you’re caring for an elderly family member, it’s important to support them in maintaining good oral hygiene to avoid dental health issues from arising.
This can include providing assistance with their daily oral healthcare routine such as toothbrushing and denture care, looking out for signs and symptoms of oral health conditions, and reminding them to attend their regular dental check-ups.
If you’d like advice on oral healthcare for older Australians - whether for yourself or for a family member - speak to your National Dental Care Group dentist. You can find your local practice online.