Aging is inevitable and can take a toll on your physical health without sparing the teeth and gums. Research has shown that gum disease is related to many systemic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, respiratory problems, and many more, all of which are more prevalent in later life. Maintaining good oral health can help protect your systemic health as well.
How does age affect oral health?
As we age, certain changes start manifesting in our bodies. Listed below are some of them:
· Your cells don’t renew themselves as fast as they used to
· Your body tissues begin to lose their elasticity and become thinner
· Your bones lose their strength and become less dense
· Your immune system starts to weaken, making you more prone to infections
All these changes in the body also adversely affect the oral structures such as tissue and bone and significantly increase the risk of contracting oral infections.
The Dental Woes of the Aging Population
The most common oral conditions that older people face are tooth loss, dental caries (tooth decay), gum disease, dry mouth, and oral cancer. Each of these is concisely discussed below.
Edentulism refers to the state of having all your natural teeth lost. Periodontal disease (gum disease) is the primary cause of tooth loss in older people. Tooth decay and oral infections can lead to gum disease. With age, your gums start to recede and lose their function of holding the teeth together. Your jawbone starts to resorb, and saliva production also decreases drastically.
Gum recession and bone resorption, coupled with less saliva production, predispose you to edentulism. Age itself isn’t a cause, but since periodontal disease can go unnoticed and untreated for decades, it causes more severe problems later that are usually difficult to treat and typically always result in tooth loss. However, if caught in its early stages, periodontal disease is relatively easier to treat and yields very successful treatment outcomes.
Dry mouth (xerostomia):
Older people generally suffer from many medical conditions that leave them dependent on certain lifelong medications. A common side effect of these drugs is xerostomia (dry mouth). A dry mouth causes more than just oral discomfort. It makes eating and swallowing difficult and consequently leads to poor digestion. It also happens to be the potential cause of many other problems like tooth decay, gum disease, and infection of oral tissues.
Xerostomia increases the risk of developing new cavities in a very short period as it allows plaque, acids, and food debris to stay on the teeth. Acids left on the teeth result in enamel erosion or the loss of the protective layer on the teeth.
Easy remedies for dry mouth include sucking on sugarless candies or gum and taking frequent small sips of water. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages should be taken in moderation as they tend to dry out the mouth.
Dental caries (tooth decay):
Dry mouth and gum recession in older individuals pose a risk of developing dental caries or tooth decay. When bacteria and food remnants are left to stay on the tooth surface, harmful acids are released that, in turn, damage the tooth surface and lead to decay.
An easy and effective way to help prevent cavities is to use a fluoridated mouth rinse.
The Bottom Line
The health of your mouth is essential to the well-being of your body. As you get older, it becomes increasingly hard to take care of your oral health. This can be due to many reasons, such as loss of manual dexterity, the onset of neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s, etc.) causing cognitive impairment, loss of mobility that makes it harder to get to a dental clinic, and the reliability of medications that cause dry mouth.
If you’re living with a medical condition that impairs your ability to take care of your teeth, talk to your dentist about the best way you can protect and maintain your oral health.