Good dental hygiene has been linked to good overall health. Medications and chronic illnesses also have an adverse effect on oral health. Despite this, providing quality dental care to seniors is a challenge. About 20% of persons over 75 have not seen a dentist in the past five years. Many older patients hesitate to see a dentist for various reasons, such as fear, lack of understanding of the need to do so, and lack of mobility to travel to a dental care provider. Often, the reason is that seniors can not afford dental care and they do not believe that they can get any type of dental insurance or a discounted dental plan. Seniors unable to care for their teeth are left prone to tooth decay and pain. Even for persons who are eager to receive dental care, paying for it may be a problem.

Medicaid, which provides insurance coverage for low-income Americans, does not require states to provide dental coverage to adults. According to the Center for Health Care Strategies, only 15 states offer comprehensive dental care benefits to Medicaid recipients. Medicare, which provides health coverage for individuals 65 and older, does not cover routine dental care. Also, when seniors retire and leave the workforce, they lose the coverage provided by their employers or other workplace insurance plans. Nursing homes are also required to provide residents with oral hygiene and dental screenings. However, dentists say that this is not done regularly. Poor oral hygiene and dental care can cause infection and eating difficulties. Research shows that the bacteria that causes gum disease is linked to an increased risk of other health issues such as aneurysms and coronary heart disease.

How can I get dental insurance? Medicare and Medicaid do not generally cover dental health

Prioritizing Oral Health

When a person is concerned with other health issues, it is easy to neglect oral health. For seniors, ailments such as arthritis can make movements and standing in place for long periods very difficult. As a result, activities such as brushing teeth may be painful and inconvenient for some. Other seniors are not as vigilant because of their frailty. This can lead to a rapid decline in oral health.

Dentists advise that it is best to brush after every meal instead of just in the morning and night. For patients who are at higher risk of periodontal disease, dentists can prescribe a particular toothpaste or gels to combat dental diseases. Daily use of high-fluoride gel or antibacterial rinse is also recommended. Persons with senior loved ones are also advised to encourage them to visit a dentist regularly to refit dentures or have their teeth cleaned. Ill-fitting dentures and missing teeth can lead to serious problems such as food going into the lungs while eating. Apart from encouraging regular dental visits, it is important that seniors get proper nutrition and essential nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.

Dentures that fit poorly can be a cause of poor nutrition. When a person loses his or her natural teeth, the jawbone continually 'remodels' itself as the teeth shrink away. Dentures that once fit well begin to slip. As a result, a senior may start restricting her or his diet because some food becomes difficult to eat, or it causes embarrassment because other people notice the troubled chewing. This is a serious issue because it occurs at a stage in a person's life when good nutrition is vital. For a senior who has not lost the natural teeth, dentures that are implant-supported instead of traditional dentures may be a solution. These dentures fit better than the traditional ones and may eliminate the problem of eating different types of food.

Encouraging and helping the senior person can go a long way to ensure that they maintain good dental hygiene, with natural teeth or dentures. Just a few decades ago, 50% of all seniors did not have any remaining natural teeth. Today, this number has dropped to 27% among persons over 65. Persons can now expect to age with a complete set of teeth. A healthy smile is a side bonus and can bolster self-image and confidence. More importantly, they can also expect an improvement in overall health - and oral health.

Identifying Oral Health Risks

Senior dental problems can be common. They affect the overall health of the entire body. Maintaining healthy teeth and gums is as important as maintaining digestive or heart health for the elderly. As a result, dental problems must be taken seriously. One good way to do this is to learn about the following risks and keep them in mind.


Cavities are associated more with children; however, older adults could expect to face an additional period of years where cavities are more likely to occur. Teeth get worn down over the years through natural means. Consequently, they are left vulnerable to the acids produced by the bacteria in the mouth. Seniors who have issues with dry mouth have an increased likelihood of developing cavities because saliva remineralizes the enamel (the outer layer of your teeth). When the mouth fails to produce enough saliva, it is unable to help the teeth deal with acid attacks. This results in a build-up of plaque which erodes the tooth, leading to a cavity.

Dry Mouth

A lot of older adults experience dry mouth, not due to aging, but usually as a side effect of medications that treat conditions such as high blood pressure, pain and Alzheimer's disease. Some medications and treatments are able to decrease the amount of saliva produced in the mouth, and this leads to dry mouth. According to the American Dental Association, some ways to relieve dry mouth symptoms include drinking more water and avoiding food and drinks that lead to dry mouth such as coffee and alcoholic beverages.

Darkened Teeth

As a person consumes foods and beverages that are highly acidic or contain sugar, the enamel starts to thin over the course of their lifetime. As it begins to thin, the next layer of teeth, called the dentin, starts to show. It is yellowish in color and is the layer of tissue below the enamel. This causes the person's teeth to lose its white appearance and darken to a more yellow tone.

Gum Disease

Periodontal disease or gum disease is common in seniors. In people with gum disease, the gums bleed easily and are easily irritated and swollen. It is usually a painless condition until it reaches a later stage. Gum disease is caused by the bacteria found in plaque. Plaque buildups could be worsened by poor diets, tobacco, food stuck in teeth and ill-fitting dentures. This disease could destroy the gums and the teeth-supporting tissue if left untreated. It can be treated easily and caught early with regular dental visits.


Looking at the risks above, it's clear that seniors have many reasons to pay attention to their oral health as they age. Their teeth are continuously weakening naturally, and they are at an increased risk of certain oral health conditions. The cost of dental care is also rising. However, ignoring oral health to save money could be very dangerous. As mentioned previously, poor oral health could lead to potentially serious health issues in other parts of the body. Therefore, seniors need to ensure that their oral health is adequately taken care of, and there are some ways to do that.

Regular visits to a dentist

Getting a routine checkup with cleanings and oral examinations from your dentist is vital for maintaining oral health as you age. As you get older, the nerves inside your mouth and in your teeth, are less sensitive. Therefore, if you have a dental issue, it might take a longer amount of time for you to notice the pain and get the treatment you need. Waiting until there is a problem is not recommended as it might be too late to save a tooth at that point. Also, the risk of developing oral cancers and gum disease are increased for seniors and dentists usually look out for symptoms to catch these issues early before they become more serious.

Sticking to a daily dental regimen

It's important to maintain a daily dental health care regimen because oral health risks increase as you age. The American Dental Association recommends brushing your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Using a toothbrush with soft bristles and a small head is advisable as you'll be able to gently and thoroughly clean areas of the teeth that are hard to reach. For seniors who have problems with arthritis, an electric toothbrush would be a better option as they require less hand and finger movement and are more effective in cleaning the teeth. Ensure that the heads of the toothbrush are replaced every three months or when the bristles are frayed. Daily use of dental floss to clean between the teeth is also recommended.

Quitting tobacco

Smoking and using tobacco products lead to an increase in dental problems including gum disease, tooth decay and discoloration. It also reduces the rate of success of dental implants and slows down the healing process for dental procedures.


Neither Medicare or Medicaid adequately covers routine dental care for the elderly. Finding a dental plan that offers discounts is probably the best way to ensure that expenses are more manageable. Seniors who choose to pay out of pocket for their dental care or pursue dental coverage could face some very high treatment costs. Depending on where you live in the United States, cleaning and routine examinations could range anywhere from $150 to $327. A dental filling could cost another $160 to $201, and a root canal can go as high as $2500. This means that a senior in the United States who takes excellent care of their teeth can still expect to spend hundreds of dollars on dental care. The cost of dental insurance similarly, ranges significantly. Seniors who do not want their dental health to suffer, need to find access to affordable dental care. One way to do this is to utilize a discount dental plan. These programs offer a nationwide network of qualified dental care professionals who accepts discounted rates from plan members. This is a site that allows you to compare plans and dentists.

More on oral health from SMC: Teeth and Aging: What Changes to Expect in Oral Health

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