When people consider health conditions that may lead to disability and death, they usually think of cancer or heart disease. Rarely do they consider how essential good dental health is for quality of life in the later years. Tooth pain and tooth loss resulting in the inability to chew comfortably can lead to malnutrition, weight loss, weakening of the immune system, and possibly systemic infection and death. Aging affects dental health on three fronts: tooth decay (caries), gum (periodontal) disease, and brittleness or wear.
Saliva is essential to mouth health. It has anti-microbial factors that kill bacteria, viruses, fungus and bicarbonate that neutralizes mouth acids and prevents tooth decay. As we age, weaker muscles and decreasing saliva make the mechanical process of chewing and swallowing more difficult. “Dry Mouth” contributes both to tooth decay and gum disease. As gums recede, food left in pockets around the cheeks and teeth can cause decay along the roots and around previous fillings. Germs mixed with food particles become plaque. If the plaque is not removed by brushing and flossing, it will become tartar, a harder substance that must be removed by a professional. Decay in the pulp can cause abscesses which can cause infection in any area of the body. In some studies, heart disease has been associated with dental infection.
Dry Mouth can be caused by dehydration but it also can be a side effect of medications frequently taken by elders, such as blood pressure medications, anti-arrhythmic medications, anti-histamines, pain killers, bladder agents, anti-depressants, and chemotherapy. As seen in the illustration below, these are the glands directly affected, which lead to Dry Mouth. It is estimated that Dry Mouth affects 70 percent of those in long term care. Since Dry Mouth can lead to rapid tooth decay, it is important to take steps to counteract it, if possible, by changing medications to ones without this side effect. Over-the-counter artificial saliva products and oral rinses with xylitol can moisten the mouth and assist in maintaining the proper acid balance. Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless hard candies, avoiding sugar, alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, and practicing oral hygiene can also help.
SOURCES FOR THIS MATERIAL: Leslie Howard, “A Senior Moment”