Beyond brushing: Keeping a healthy mouth as you age

February 5, 2020


In this article:

  • Seniors are more prone to dry mouth, gum disease, and oral cancer.

  • Healthy oral habits can support overall health.

  • A few simple steps can prevent future health problems, says Providence experts. 

Another cavity. Gum disease. Dry mouth. If you’ve heard any of these words at your recent dental exam, you may be seeing signs of aging in your oral health.

As you get older, although some of your health routines may change, keeping up good oral hygiene is crucial. Nearly one in five adults over the age of 65 has lost all their teeth, but good dental habits can help prevent tooth decay, infection and loss of teeth. Healthy teeth and gums may also help your heart.

Read on to learn how to maintain your healthy smile as you age.

Common oral health problems in aging adults

While some oral health problems may result from a lack of brushing or flossing, you may find that chronic diseases and certain medications can take a toll on your mouth as you get older. And since Medicare does not usually cover routine dental care, you may be more likely to skip yearly dental cleanings and checkups.

Below are some of the most common oral health problems seniors face and how to prevent them.

Gum or periodontal disease

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 68 percent of adults age 65 or older have gum disease. Even with regular dental visits, years of plaque buildup can cause gum disease, which makes gums swollen, red and prone to bleeding. Gum disease can eventually cause the gums to pull away from the teeth, which can lead to tooth loss or nerve damage.

Even with regular dental visits, years of plaque buildup can cause gum disease, which makes gums swollen, red and prone to bleeding. 

Mouth cancer

Mouth cancer (also called oral and oropharyngeal cancer) typically affects people over the age of 55. According to the American Cancer Society, the average age of most people diagnosed with mouth cancer is 62.

Mouth cancer is usually found on the tongue, tonsils, oropharynx, gums and floor of the mouth. While the most common risk factor for mouth cancer is tobacco and alcohol use, cancer can affect anyone at any age. With that in mind, it’s important to tell your dentist or doctor about any mouth changes you notice, such as lumps or sores that don’t get better.

Dry mouth

Many older adults face chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease. Unfortunately, many of the medicines used to treat these conditions create dry mouth, which happens when your mouth doesn’t produce enough saliva to keep it wet.

When you have dry mouth, you are more at risk for tooth decay or infections. This is because saliva protects teeth and controls bacteria and fungi in the mouth.

If you have dry mouth, make sure you talk to your doctor or dentist about the medications you’re taking. They may be able to offer tips to help dry mouth or change your prescriptions to restore your saliva production.

Tooth loss

Losing teeth is another common oral health problem in seniors, and roughly one in five adults age 65 or older have lost all their teeth or had them removed due to decay.

Tooth loss can be the result of several issues, including untreated tooth decay and gum disease. If left untreated, tooth loss can lead to malnutrition in seniors.

How to maintain good oral health as you age

Although oral health issues can be common among seniors, there are steps you can take to prevent serious problems or tooth loss.

Brush and floss daily

Make sure you’re brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. You should also floss at least once a day.

See your dentist regularly

Visiting your dentist can keep your teeth clean and help spot any oral health issues before they turn into serious problems. Some people must see the dentist two or more times per year, while others may need to go less often. Talk to your dentist about how often you should visit.

While Medicare doesn’t cover routine dental care, there are private, affordable dental insurance options. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a list of resources available for low-cost dental care

Watch for mouth changes

Because oral cancer is more likely to affect older adults, seniors should carefully watch for mouth changes. Talk to your dentist or doctor if you notice these symptoms for more than two weeks:

  • A lump in your mouth, throat, or lip
  • Swelling in your jaw
  • General mouth pain or tenderness
  • Numbness around your tongue or mouth
  • A sore spot on your mouth, lip, or throat
  • A red or white patch in your mouth
  • Problems chewing, swallowing, or moving your jaw
  • Ear pain without hearing loss
  • Loose teeth

Stay hydrated  

Staying hydrated can help with dry mouth and keep your mouth moist, which can reduce your chances of tooth decay and infection.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how much water someone should drink, as it depends on your activity level, environment and overall health. In general, try to drink enough to keep yourself from feeling thirsty. For some people, that may be eight eight-ounce glasses of water every day. For others, it may be more or less. Talk to your doctor about the right amount of water for you.

Eat right

Staying away from excess sugar or sugar-sweetened foods is good for your health in general, but a sugar-limited diet can also help lower your risk for tooth decay and tooth loss.

Avoid tobacco

Smoking or chewing tobacco can increase your chance of developing mouth cancer and cigarettes can also raise your risk for gum disease.

If you smoke, talk to your doctor or dentist about ways you can quit. You can access a Providence smoking cessation class, or take advantage of our online resources.

Talk to a doctor

If you have questions about your oral health or notice any concerning symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor or dentist. They will be able to make recommendations to help you maintain a healthy mouth. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory

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Related resources

Can brushing your teeth help your heart?

This is why you shouldn’t brush your teeth with activated charcoal

Are your elders eating enough?

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.


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