Over the last couple of years, as you are looking after your own health, you might have often found that you are making sure your loved ones do the same— especially your grandparents, parents, or other older family members. You might also be wondering about some other important areas of their healthcare— such as their dental hygiene. Below are some common problems seen in senior dental care, as well as some pieces of advice to share with your loved ones that can help them keep that smile you know and love as healthy as ever.

Tooth Decay in Senior Adults

According to the CDC, 96% of Americans over the age of 65 have had a cavity, and 1 in 5 have untreated tooth decay. This can be caused by a number of problems—be it a poor diet, or simply forgetting to regularly brush teeth. Frequent alcohol and tobacco usage can also enable tooth decay and yellowing. Seniors can usually tell if they have a cavity if they suddenly start to experience increased tooth sensitivity, or if they can see any new brown, black, or white stains on their teeth. It is important to treat and prevent tooth decay as soon as it is noticed. If neglected, the tooth will decay entirely and eventually fall out. This can lead to complete tooth loss. Tooth loss can also further lead to nutritional problems with seniors since they are less likely to consume harder, fibrous foods like raw fruits and vegetables. So, preventing tooth decay really isn’t just about treating a little cavity, but more so about keeping your entire body healthy and nourished even if you are well into old age.

Thankfully, tooth decay is easy to prevent. Seniors should make sure to brush and floss their teeth two times a day. If they have mobility issues which can inhibit them from using a traditional toothbrush, see if using an electric one is easier for them. Additionally, if the process of cavity formation has already started, a dentist can drill out the area of decay or cover the tooth with a sealant or cap to prevent cavities from forming in the first place.

Dry Mouth in Seniors

As we get older, you may have to start taking a variety of medications every day to help with other existing medical conditions. However, a common side-effect in both over-the-counter and prescribed drugs can be dry mouth. This side effect can make patients feel as though their tongue and the inside of their mouth has a cotton, papery sensation. Not only is it uncomfortable, but it can also lead to a higher risk for cavities and tooth decay.

Luckily, there are many other medications out there for seniors that do not cause dry mouth. Seniors should talk to their doctor about getting a different prescription or trying another over-the-counter drug that will work similarly to the one they are already using. However, sometimes it is necessary to stay on the same medication despite its unwanted side effects. In these cases, dentists recommend that seniors should decrease their use of alcohol and tobacco, increase their daily water intake, and chew sugarless gum to aid in saliva production. If dry mouth persists, dentists may also suggest taking another over-the-counter drug used to increase saliva production.

Gum Disease

About 2 in 3 (68%) adults aged 65 years or older have gum disease. Seniors can typically tell if they may be at risk for gum disease if they have swollen, red gums that are tender to the touch or bleeding. Gum disease is also usually caused by poor dental hygiene and can lead to tooth loss just like tooth decay. However, on a more serious note, it is a risk factor for other heart and lung diseases meaning that it may compound some pre-existing health issues in your family’s medical history. This is more reason for them to prevent or treat gum disease.

At home, seniors should also brush and floss their teeth two times a day to prevent gum disease as well as tooth decay. At a dentist’s office, a hygienist can also take X-rays of a senior’s teeth to assess the severity of their gum disease. In some cases, they might feel inclined to prescribe an antiseptic oral rinse or toothpaste for them to use; or, in a slightly more serious case, an antibiotic may also be prescribed if the gums are infected. In the most severe cases, periodontal therapy may need to be performed. This is a procedure done by a dentist that involves creating a pocket between the infected gum and tooth and removing the infected gum and diseased roots of the tooth. This procedure is traditionally done with a scalpel or a laser. If the patient continues to brush and floss their teeth as well as use any of the treatments prescribed their dentist, their gum disease could go away in a matter of a month or two.

Oral Cancer

The average age of an oral or pharyngeal cancer patient is 62 years old. Some typical physical side-effects of the presence of oral and pharyngeal cancer can be a lip or mouth sore that does not heal, white or red patches inside the mouth, loose teeth, mouth pain, ear pain, or difficulty swallowing. Seniors who use tobacco or alcohol on a regular basis, have had HPV, or have a weakened immune system are at a higher risk of developing oral cancer than other seniors. Depending on the severity of the disease, it can spread to other parts of your body.

Dentists can detect the presence of oral cancer through routine check-up appointments and X-rays. It is important to encourage seniors to stop using tobacco and/or alcohol and to make sure they are talk to their dentists if they start to exhibit any of the described symptoms above. Treatments can be performed to sometimes diminish or eradicate oral or pharyngeal cancer, but these are usually performed by oncologists.

The Best Thing You Can Do for Your Family’s Seniors and their Dental Health:

Making sure your senior family members have scheduled regular appointments to a dental professional is truly the best way you can look out for their health and safety. These dental healthcare experts can make sure that your older family members are developing healthy, hygienic dental habits, and can give the most knowledgeable consultation for taking care of their teeth.

If you are looking for a family dentistry practice in Knoxville that has decades’ worth of experience in treating patients of all ages, look no further than University General Dentists. With a combined 60 years of practice in their field, our dentists are seasoned professionals who can expertly assess and care for all your family members—no matter how young or old. University General Dentists provides a variety of services ranging from family to cosmetic dentistry. Whether it’s time for a routine cleaning, a set of customized veneers, or state-of-the-art periodontal therapy, University General Dentists is ready to serve you and your loved ones. University General Dentists also has two, convenient locations—one at the University of Tennessee Medical Center and one in West Knoxville—to help provide easily accessible dental care to all Knoxville families no matter where they live. Call today to make an appointment at our UT office at (865)-305-9440 or at our West Knoxville office at (865)-500-5700.