A visit to my dentist and his hygienist compelled me to ask about older people’s teeth. My dentist’s (and his wife’s) parents are in their 80’s. I wondered if aging took its toll on teeth–and if so, why.
My first question was to the hygienist who I always see first. It was something like: Do older people’s teeth present different problems than younger people’s teeth?
Thus began a conversation about–
1. Holding a tooth-brush correctly so older people can do a thorough brushing
2. Dry mouth (xerostomia)–not uncommon as people age.
The hygienist told me she learned many years ago that tooth-brushes can be difficult for old, arthritic hands to grasp. The suggestion was to securely tape the tooth-brush to something allowing for a larger grip–like a soda can. Her second suggestion was an electric tooth brush, but that has drawbacks if older people don’t use it correctly.
I didn’t realize brushing could be a problem, but now I’m certain it is. Asking Sr. Advisor R (101) about it, I learned her dentist said she wasn’t brushing as well as she once could and recommended rinsing her mouth with Biotene. There are quite a few Biotene products–one especially for dry mouth and one with PBF; the latter Sr. Advisor R uses. It would seem worthwhile to check this out.
When my dentist came to do the final check of my teeth, he weighed in, giving me a paper he wrote entitled Dry Mouth and Dentures. (It will be the subject of another post). Readers may already know this, but I learned:
Our salivary glands produce less saliva as we age. And “saliva,” according to Dr. Gary Markovits, “contains hundreds of the body’s ‘natural medicines’ designed to keep our mouths healthy……. It also regulates the microorganisms (‘germs’) that cause oral infections.” Thus, dry mouth makes us more prone to oral infections.
“If you have some natural teeth,” Dr. Markovits writes in his Dry Mouth and Dentures piece, “decay is the most frequent cause of tooth loss in older adults who have a dry mouth. Without saliva to regulate the germs that cause decay, they are able to grow in number and cause more damage. Ask your dentist or dental hygienist for ways to reduce tooth decay.”
It’s not only aging that can cause dry mouth. Certain medications as well as chemotherapy and radiation cause glands to produce less saliva. WebMD, in its slideshow on teeth and gums, sums it all up and identifies medications that can cause dry mouth (slides 3 and 4):
“Saliva helps protect teeth and gums from bacteria that cause cavities and given that a chronically dry mouth raises risk of cavities and gum disease, you may want to check your medicine cabinet. Antihistamines, decongestants, painkillers, and antidepressants are among the drugs that can cause dry mouth. Talk to your doctor or dentist to find out if your medication regimen is affecting your oral health, and what you can do about it.”
Which brings us to the holidays and the sweet treats and excessive amounts of food that tempt young and old. If older people we care about have teeth problems, this seems like a good time to be proactive and check out the above with your dentist or have your parents do it with their dentist.
As we try to help parents and the older people we care about age well, a good offense is the best defense. If the above information can improve the odds for older peoples’ teeth remaining healthy while they enjoy eating whatever they want, isn’t it a win-win!
Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus practical information–to help parents age well.