Caregiver Guide: Dental Problems

Understanding the Problem

Dental problems are some of the most common health problems experienced by older adults. In fact, people over 65 with natural teeth have more tooth decay than any other age group.  This means they continue to need a yearly visit to the dentist.
There are many reasons why older adults have dental problems.  Older people produce less saliva, which is needed to clean the teeth. Gums shrink with age, which exposes teeth to decay or infection. Additionally, older persons may have difficulty flossing and brushing because of poor vision or problems moving their arms, wrists, and hands.
Dental problems can also lead to poor nutrition. Unfortunately, these problems are often not taken care of by older persons, particularly men.
There are five dental problems common among older persons.

Dental decay

When people age, their gums begin to shrink. The roots of the tooth are exposed and it is very easy for cavities to develop in this area. Cavities can lead to infection and teeth breaking off. A yearly visit to the dentist is a good way to prevent this. If the older person does not feel comfortable with the dentist you have chosen, find a dentist with training in treating older adults.

Gum disease

Plaque grows on the surface of the teeth. The bacteria found in plaque give off acids that cause gum disease. To prevent gum disease and decay, make sure the person you are caring for removes plaque daily by brushing and flossing the teeth. An electric toothbrush may be easier for the person to use, but ask the dentist or dental hygienist to demonstrate how to use it.

Poorly fitting dentures

Dentures need to be checked and refitted on a regular basis because they can become loose or uncomfortable. Poorly fitting dentures may drop when a person speaks, and they can cause chewing problems that can lead to poor nutrition. 

Dry mouth

Older people sometimes produce less saliva. Saliva is a natural mouth protector which limits the growth of bacteria, cleanses the mouth of food, and bathes the teeth with protective minerals. Dry mouth can cause dental decay.  It can be caused by some diseases, cancer therapy, or by certain medicines, alcohol, and other drugs which slow the flow of saliva.  

Oral cancer

Oral cancer includes cancers of the mouth, throat, tongue, and lips. If you notice red or white spots, sores in the mouth or bleeding which does not disappear within two weeks, make an appointment with the dentist or healthcare provider. These could be early signs of oral cancer. 

Prevention is the best medicine. Many dental problems are preventable with good daily mouth care. If problems are caught early they are usually inexpensive and easy to fix.

Your goals are to:

  • Encourage daily mouth care
  • Be alert to signs of dental problems
  • Keep mouth moist
  • Make sure the older person visits the dentist at least once a year

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