As we age and our bodies start to deteriorate, the list of health concerns we need to monitor seems to constantly grow.
Skin checks, mammograms, prostate checks, flu vaccinations, eye checks, hearing checks, cardio-angiograms, high blood pressure – the list can seem endless.
So here’s the question for you – when did you last think about your teeth, your choppers, your not-so-pearly whites?
The most recent New Zealand Older People’s Oral Health Survey found just over half of all New Zealanders aged 65+ had lost all of their natural teeth, while 43% of those living in their own homes had untreated decay on one or more teeth and 33% had untreated root decay on one or more teeth. Dental neglect not only affects your teeth – it can also lead to other major health concerns such as dementia and pneumonia.
Studies have found that tooth loss may increase the chance of cardiovascular disease, including stroke.
As chewing increases neural activity and cerebral blood flow, the number of teeth lost may also be a predictor of cognitive decline and dementia. The bacteria that cause periodontal or gum disease have been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.
Failing to look after our teeth also raises the risk of malnutrition due to a limited ability to eat certain foods, and social isolation as older people might be concerned about their appearance as their dental problems increase.
Oral hygiene should definitely be on our list of concerns to check, and should be moved close to the top.
Oral health conditions affecting older people
Ageing brings increased risks of certain oral conditions. The good news is that many of these are preventable, particularly if older people see a dentist regularly.
- Dry mouth – can be exacerbated by certain medications including decongestants, antihistamines and painkillers as well as certain diseases or medical treatments such as radiation for cancer.
- Attrition – general wear and tear as a result of years of chewing. Time means the layer of enamel protecting the teeth starts to wear down, increasing the risk of cavities.
- Oral disease – these can include serious diseases such as mouth cancer as well as less serious diseases such as oral thrush.
- Gum disease – also known as periodontal disease, this is caused by a build up of plaque. This is a major cause of tooth loss.
- Root decay – our gums often recede as we get older, which can expose the root of the tooth. The root is then vulnerable to acid that can cause decay.
- Sensitive teeth – receding gums are the culprit again, exposing areas of the tooth that aren’t protected by enamel.
Improving our oral health as we age
Looking after our teeth as we age is not that much different from the practices we were taught as young children. The most important aspect is to ensure that we practice good hygiene on a daily basis.
Here’s a checklist for good oral hygiene practices as we age:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day for two minutes each time. Use a soft-bristled brush and a toothpaste containing fluoride. It’s important not to “scrub” your teeth as this can hasten the erosion of protective enamel.
- Floss daily – with dental floss or an interdental brush. Dentists have been heard to say “your 92-year-old self will thank you for doing this” – that’s how important it is.
- Use mouthwash to remove food particles left after brushing and flossing.
- Eat a healthy diet and limit sugary food and drinks.
- Replace your toothbrush regularly – every three months is recommended – or sooner if the bristles are worn.
- Avoid tobacco use.
- Stay hydrated – if you take medication that causes a dry mouth, drink plenty of water. Avoiding alcohol use and chewing sugar-free gum can also help.
- Look after your dentures – follow the instructions provided by your dentist and have an annual check-up.
- And of course, visit your dentist regularly – even if you wear dentures – and as soon as an oral problem occurs.
Helping older New Zealanders to look after their oral health
Family members of older New Zealanders can play an important part in ensuring the good oral health of our loved ones. Make sure they attend the dentist regularly by helping to make appointments or providing transport to appointments, look out for signs and symptoms of oral health conditions, and assist, if needed, with toothbrushing and denture care.
If you are not available to help your older loved one with their dental care, a Home Instead CAREGiver can. Our CAREGivers are trained to help with brushing teeth and denture care and of course, they can also help with transportation to and from a dental appointment.
About Home Instead
Home Instead is a specialist, national provider of high quality, relationship-based, in-home care for older New Zealanders. We help with a range of personal and lifestyle needs while providing welcome companionship. Our services include assistance with personal care, light household duties, meal preparation, medication reminders, and transport to appointments, shopping and social outings. We take personal responsibility for providing the best in-home care and support to meet our clients’ needs and are committed to addressing the individual and national challenges of New Zealand’s ageing population.