Old age can bring about more than just wrinkles. As we age, our immune system becomes weaker. This can make elderly people more prone to infection or disease. Oral disorders are no exception.
Periodontal or gum disease is more common in the elderly population, alongside oral cancer, dental cavities and tooth loss.
Why Are The Elderly More At Risk Of Oral Disease?
There are certain factors which make older people more likely to develop oral disease. These include:
The Physiology of Ageing
The ageing process can bring about changes to the oral cavity. With increasing age, the gum line begins to recede. Teeth can present with worn enamel, discolouration, fracture lines and bone loss. A weakened immune system makes it more likely to develop oral diseases, and it can take longer to heal from them.
The list of chronic medications that people take increases with age. There are side effects to every medication, and some of these side effects can negatively affect oral health.
A common side effect of over 500 medications is dry mouth. This includes pain medication like opioids, which many older patients are prescribed. Certain chronic medications like antihypertensives, antipsychotics and antihistamines cause tooth discolouration,
Elderly people are more likely to have multiple chronic conditions. Some of these conditions can predispose them to poor oral health, especially if not managed properly.
Diabetes that is not adequately controlled can cause high levels of sugar in the blood. This can increase the risk of developing gum disease, tooth decay and oral thrush.
Cancer therapies can affect oral health. Radiation therapy in the head/neck region can damage salivary glands, leading to dry mouth. A side effect of chemotherapy is vomiting, which can cause stomach acids to be regurgitated into the mouth, and damage tooth enamel.
Parkinson’s disease affects the nervous system and causes the muscles of the jaw to become stiff. This can make chewing or swallowing difficult. It can also reduce the ability to maintain good oral hygiene, as it is challenging to brush the teeth and floss properly in this condition.
Many elderly people do not get the nutrition they need. The absorption of vitamins and minerals reduces in old age and can lead to malnutrition. A lack of calcium causes weakened bones of the jaw and teeth.
Smoking, chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol can cause damage to tooth enamel and discolouration. In addition, not complying with medication regimens can cause chronic diseases like diabetes to spiral out of control. This increases the risk of developing oral disease.
Those that are frail and weak find it difficult to maintain hygienic practices like brushing twice daily, flossing and gargling with mouthwash. This can create an oral environment prone to infection.
Not everyone has money saved up for retirement. There are elderly people who cannot afford health insurance, caregivers or transportation to public healthcare facilities.
Local private healthcare facilities can be expensive. Many elderly people also live with disabilities. These difficulties can deter them from visiting a dentist.
What Are The Most Common Oral Health Problems In Elderly Adults?
Also known as xerostomia, having a dry mouth means reduced production of saliva in the mouth. Saliva has an antibacterial effect that prevents tooth decay. It is responsible for neutralising acids that would otherwise erode tooth enamel.
Periodontal disease, also called gum disease, occurs in stages. It starts off as gingivitis, which is an inflammation of the gums.
The disease then progresses in stages of severity of tooth and gum infection. The gums recede and expose the roots of teeth, causing tooth decay and eventually tooth loss.
Most elderly people experience tooth loss. This can be caused due to several factors, such as gum recession, tooth decay, oral disease, and trauma. This makes it difficult to chew and causes selectivity towards soft foods, which aren’t the healthiest.
Oral cancer is diagnosed mostly in the elderly population. Poor lifestyle habits are a risk factor for developing cancer in the mouth. These include smoking, chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol.
What Can Happen If Oral Disease Is Left Untreated?
There are conditions which can be caused as a result of oral disease left untreated. Bacteria from oral infections like gum disease can get into the bloodstream and affect other parts of the body, such as the heart, lungs and brain. It can also increase inflammation in the body.
This could lead to complications like heart disease, stroke, bronchitis, pneumonia, arthritis and dementia. Gum disease has been linked to the development of kidney disease and different types of cancers, including oral, blood and pancreatic cancers.
How Can The Elderly Improve Their Oral Health?
Poor oral health can affect the overall health and quality of life of elderly adults, as it can lead to difficulty eating, speaking, and swallowing. Therefore, it is important for elderly adults to receive regular dental checkups and maintain good oral hygiene practices to prevent and treat oral health problems.
- Visit The Dentist Regularly: Regular dental checkups and cleanings can help detect and treat oral health problems early on.
- Brush And Floss Regularly: Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and floss at least once a day to remove dental plaque, which can cause gum disease and tooth decay.
- Quit Smoking And Drinking Alcohol: This can reduce the risk of developing gum disease, tooth decay, and oral cancer.
- Practise Good Nutrition: Eating a healthy, balanced diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals can help maintain oral health. Supplementing with calcium, magnesium and vitamin D can strengthen your teeth and bones.
- Manage Chronic Conditions: Chronic conditions such as diabetes can increase the risk of oral health problems. Managing these diseases by taking your medication as advised and making appropriate lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk.
It's important to consult with a dentist for personalised oral healthcare recommendations, based on your individual needs and health conditions.