What does it mean to have good dental health?

It depends on who you ask. Many people assume it means a white smile and straight teeth – something cosmetic. But the truth is that your oral health is a critical component of overall health, and regular dental care is a must.

Let’s explore why good dental hygiene is important for seniors, common issues that occur and simple ways you can maintain and enhance your oral health.

Common oral health issues for seniors

When we say “oral health,” what are we really talking about? Typically, it refers to the overall health of your teeth, gums, tongue and oral tissue. All these elements work together to help you chew, swallow, talk and even breathe. And while oral health is sometimes thought of as something separate from the body’s overall health and well-being, the truth is that everything is interconnected.

Your mouth is a gateway for bacteria and infection. It might be surprising to think about, but even seemingly small dental issues can affect your body in ways you don’t expect. Studies show that poor dental hygiene can even affect your heart and brain.

So, what types of dental issues are people over 65 more susceptible to?

Gum disease in the elderly

Yep, it’s a fact – your gums recede with age. Often this can be a symptom of gum disease, a type of infection also known as periodontitis. According to the CDC, 68% of adults who are 65 or older have gum disease. And this is a big deal, because while common, it can be quite serious. Gum disease may cause swollen, painful areas of gum tissue around the teeth, eventually leading to tooth loss and bone loss. It can also correlate with multiple medical issues, like heart and lung disease and diabetes.

Deterioration of teeth: Decay and loss

Nearly 1 in 5 adults aged 65 or older have lost all or most of their teeth. Is tooth loss inevitable? What age do teeth start to fall out? It’s actually not that simple. Properly cared for teeth can last a lifetime! If the teeth have not been or are not properly and consistently cared for, the risk of decay and gum disease increases. Both tooth decay and gum disease can lead to pain, infection and tooth loss.

The consequences of dry mouth

Dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, is a common problem for seniors struggling with oral health issues. Saliva is an important player in the ecosystem of a healthy mouth. Without it, you may be vulnerable to the irritation or infection of oral tissue, leading to, you guessed it, gum disease. It can also increase your risk of cavities and make it painful to talk or eat.

So why are seniors so prone to this? Many, if not most, medicines list dry mouth as a potential side effect. This can include antidepressants, heart medicines, antihistamines, blood pressure medicines and even some common OTC painkillers. Dry mouth can occur when starting a new medicine or even just increasing the dose of one you’re already taking. Keep an eye on listed side effects and get in touch with your doctor or dentist if you notice dryness.

Enamel loss in seniors

Your teeth are just like every other part of the body – they’re vulnerable to wear and tear. Decades of chewing, grinding and exposure to food and beverages can erode or dissolve your teeth’s natural protection, enamel. When enamel is compromised, it can expose a tooth’s soft core, leading to pain or infection. And this infection can sneak under the radar for a while, quietly worsening until the only ways to treat it are invasive procedures, like a root canal or a complete removal of the tooth.

5 oral hygiene tips for seniors

So what does all this mean for you? Are your teeth doomed? Absolutely not. Aging teeth can still be healthy teeth. It just takes a little preventive care, including good oral hygiene and regular visits to your dental care clinic. Here are a few tools you can use in your dental health arsenal.

1. Brush your teeth daily

It seems obvious, but daily maintenance is no joke. Brushing your teeth helps remove harmful bacteria and plaque. Aim for two minutes of brushing twice a day and flossing once a day. Use a fluoride-rich toothpaste – there are even options for people with sensitive teeth. Antibacterial mouthwashes are also a great tool. If it is hard for you to physically brush or floss, talk to your dentist about your options. There are many oral health tools, like electric toothbrushes and floss picks, that may be more accessible to you.

2. See your dentist regularly

Regular care is a critical piece of oral health. Most seniors should have their teeth cleaned and undergo oral screenings regularly. During checkups, your dentist will determine your risk level and will recommend any follow-up visits specific to your needs. And remember, if you start to notice issues, such as tooth and/or gum pain, dry mouth or specific functional issues, don’t hesitate to reach out. You don’t have to wait for great care.

Live in Minnesota or Wisconsin? Find out about the dental coverage available with HealthPartners Medicare plans.

3. Eat smart

There are plenty of foods that can jeopardize your oral health, but as with most things, moderation is key. For instance, we all know sugary food can increase your risk of cavities. But acidic foods and drinks, like citrus fruits or carbonated drinks, are also something to look out for. They can wear away your enamel. Also, keep an eye on “sharp” snacks, like popcorn or potato chips, that can get stuck between your teeth or injure your gums, leading to abrasions and open wounds.

What about healthy foods? Here are some of the snacks that are great for your oral health:

  • Fruits and veggies rich in fiber – leafy greens are especially recommended
  • Lean proteins like fish and poultry
  • Dairy products like milk, cheese and plain yogurt
  • Plenty of water, especially containing fluoride

4. Quit smoking

Smoking can take a huge toll on both your oral and overall health. Not only does it weaken your body’s immune system, but it also doubles your risk of gum disease. Making matters worse, it makes treatment for gum disease, and many other oral issues, less effective. Smoking can also increase plaque buildup, tissue inflammation, tooth discoloration and much more.

That being said, we know that quitting smoking isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been doing it for a long time. However, you don’t have to go through the process alone. There are plenty of online resources that can help, including virtual forums, guide materials and mentor programs. You can also look to your local health clinic to see what kind of smoking cessation programs and resources are available.

5. Take care of your removable dentures

If you have dentures, consistent maintenance is a must. This includes rinsing them thoroughly after you eat and regular daily cleanings. We recommend that you gently brush your dentures at least once a day with a soft brush and mild denture cleaner. This helps to get rid of food, plaque, denture adhesive and bacteria.

Make sure you’re still brushing your tongue, any natural teeth and other oral tissue. Also, dentures need moisture. Soaking your dentures overnight in a gentle solution will help keep them clean. Just remember to rinse them off thoroughly before you put them back in.

Does Medicare cover dental?

Original Medicare (coverage from the government) only covers dental care that’s necessary for treating an injury or illness. This doesn’t include the regular office visits, exams, cleanings and common procedures you need to maintain good oral health.

However, Medicare Advantage plans (Part C), Medicare Cost plans and standalone dental plans can offer a variety of different dental benefits to help meet your needs. Depending on your coverage, you can find a plan that covers preventive exams, X-rays, denture care, root canals and much more.

Learn more: Dental coverage after age 65