A story goes that a hundred-year-old man was asked if he had regrets in his life. He said he wished he had taken better care of his teeth; he had not realized he would need to use them for so long!

People are living longer and teeth must last a lot longer than before. Fortunately, seniors seem to have gotten this message. Studies by the Health Policy Institute of the American Dental Association (ADA) indicate that America's elders of 65 years of age or older are increasing their access to dental care. In 2000, 38.3 percent of elderly Americans utilized dental care The percentage increased to 42.4 percent in 2011.

This increase is important because there of the significant health gains related to good dental care for seniors. These include avoiding the most common cause of death for institutionalized seniors: pneumonia. Once an elderly person enters a nursing home or hospital, he or she is exposed to infection. ADA studies show that when they practiced good oral hygiene, fewer elderly people in institutional settings contracted pneumonia. The ADA researchers estimated that 10% of deaths by pneumonia in nursing homes and hospitals may be prevented through the practice of good oral hygiene.

...toothlessness in the elderly is declining.

Another ADA publication, MouthHealthy, addresses dental health issues for seniors. Toothlessness is not inevitable for the elderly, the site states. In fact, the study on dental care utilization by the Health Policy Institute of the ADA noted that toothlessness in the elderly is declining. Elders' teeth are getting better because of good care. Still, there are things that the elderly and their caregivers must know.

MouthHealthy warns that nerve sensitivity decreases with age, so pain may not be a tip-off that a dental issue has arisen. For this reason, semi-annual examinations have become more important than ever. Seniors and their caregivers should assure that dentist appointments are made and kept.

The usual recommendations for good oral health apply equally forcefully to seniors: brush at least twice a day, floss at least once a day, with the added admonition to the elderly to keep dentures clean. Drinking lots of water is good for all aspects of health, including the fact that it rinses the teeth and mouth as a between-brushings cleanser. MouthHealthy notes too that most tap water contains fluoride, which helps prevent cavities, so drinking tap water makes good dental sense.

Smoking adds to general decay, weakness, gum disintegration, and staining of the teeth, so if an elderly person has not quit smoking for other health reasons, dental health is one more reason to give up those "coffin nails."

Some elders also have a sweet tooth...

It is tempting to forego proper dental care when an elderly person is no longer interested in eating, bathing, or grooming, which is not uncommon among those of advanced age. Some elders also have a sweet tooth, and, as their appetites wane, caregivers may be tempted to keep up caloric intake by offering sweets while letting the elderly person skip frequent brushings.

The link between oral health and pneumonia and other diseases that relate to respiratory infections and aspiration-related diseases should be sufficient to motivate caregivers and the elderly to keep the mouth free of bacteria through daily, thorough and careful tending.

Sources

MouthHealthy. Aging and Dental Health. American Dental Association. Available online at http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/a/aging-and-dental-health. Retrieved 12/9/2016.

Nasseh, K., Vujici, M. (2013). Dental Care Utilization Continues to Decline among Working-Age Adults, Increases among the Elderly, Stable among Children. Health Policy Institute Research Brief. The American Dental Association. Available online at http://www.ada.org/~/media/ADA/Science%20and%20Research/HPI/Files/HPIBrief_1013_2.ashx. Retrieved 12/9/2016.

Rosenblum, Jr., R. Good oral hygiene reduces the risk of pneumonia in elderly people in the hospital or those living in nursing homes. ADA Center for Evidence-Based Dentistry. Available online at http://ebd.ada.org/en/evidence/evidence-by-topic/geriatric-dentistry/a-systematic-review-of-the-preventive-effect-of-oral-hygiene-on-pneumonia-and-respiratory-tract-inf?Tab=3. Retrieved 12/9/2016.

Wall, T., Nasseh, K., &Vujicic, M. (2014). Most Important Barriers to Dental Care Are Financial, Not Supply-Related. Health Policy Institute Research Brief. The American Dental Association. Available online at http://www.ada.org/~/media/ADA/Science%20and%20Research/HPI/Files/HPIBrief_1014_2.ashx. Retrieved 12/9/2016.

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