Keeping our smiles sparkling bright helps us stay confident as we get older, and there are numerous health benefits tied to solid pearly white maintenance routines. Fortunately for most Americans, improved access to preventative dental care is on the rise. Here’s a rundown of what to expect from your providers, as well as what to watch out for, and how you can best apply the preventative process at home.
How Often Should I See My Hygienist?
Preventative dentistry — AKA your routine checkups and cleanings — is your front line of defense to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. Early detection of any issues is your friend. So even though you may have retired or given up your insurance (more on that later), it’s still vital that you schedule a dental appointment at least every six months. Mark your calendar!
What to Expect When You Visit Your Hygienist
Your registered dental hygienist (the equivalent of a registered nurse in your doctor’s office) will be your partner in tooth preservation. They will thoroughly remove any tartar or plaque buildup across your teeth as well as just below the edges of your gums against the tooth roots. These deeper areas are critical, as buildup in those spaces puts you at a higher risk of tooth loss.
Dental cleanings for seniors are nearly identical to what you have always experienced in years past (minus the end-of-visit lollipop). The only difference is that you may need additional adjunctive treatments such as fluoride or modifications in your oral hygiene plan.
Common Oral Health Concerns for Seniors
Here are the top things to keep an eye out for.
Your dental team will need to take intermittent x-rays to screen for bone loss. Lack of bone support can be caused by bone disease, medications, and past gum disease. If caught early enough, you can reduce your chances of tooth loss.
Depending on what life has thrown at you, you might find that your once perfectly healthy teeth are suddenly developing decay for the first time ever. You’re not alone. Multiple factors such as limited dexterity, lack of saliva flow, and exposed root surfaces can compound the problem.
Gum recession becomes more common as we age. It’s caused by aggressive toothbrushing, misaligned teeth, or past gum disease and leaves our tooth roots exposed. This is a problem as tooth roots aren’t protected against bacteria and acids because they aren’t covered by enamel.
Xerostomia (Dry Mouth)
As we get older, our saliva glands don’t work as well as they used to, resulting in dry mouth. These symptoms are also aggravated by many of the prescription medications that we take. The lack of saliva flow makes eating more difficult, but it also puts seniors at serious risk of tooth decay.
Systemic Health Risks
The link between your oral and systemic (overall) health is strong. We know from research that oral bacteria can travel through your bloodstream into other parts of the body, becoming lodged in our arteries, heart, and lungs.1 If you’re already predisposed to any of these medical conditions, having active oral disease could potentially put you at an even greater risk of developing a severe case of:
Side note: Old fashioned oral hygiene can statistically lower your risk and severity of some of the above-mentioned medical conditions. So keep that toothbrush and floss on deck!
Home Dental Care
Beyond the traditional brushing and flossing twice a day, you can amp up your dental care routine at home with the addition of a few useful tools.
Electrify Your Smile
I highly recommend using a powered toothbrush for better plaque removal (plus, it’s great if you have arthritic joints or limited dexterity). Just remember that you get what you pay for; a higher-end sonic brush will usually be gentler on exposed root surfaces and recessed gums and more effective.
Detail Your Teeth
As seniors are more likely to have pesky spaces between their teeth (due to gradual gum loss), I recommend what’s called a “proxabrush.” They come in various shapes and sizes but essentially serve as a tiny toothbrush that can reach between your teeth. Use them at least once a day.
Fluoride On Tap
Right now, you really can’t get too much of this good thing. Since seniors tend to have dry mouth and gum recession, you’re at extremely high risk for root-surface cavities. Use an over-the-counter fluoride rinse (such as ACT) after brushing and flossing, just before you go to bed.
What About Dentures?
If you’re currently wearing a partial or full denture (AKA “plate”), you’re not off the hook. You still need to see your dentist twice a year for exams as part of your holistic health plan. They’ll screen you for bone loss, clean your denture while you’re there, and make recommendations if adjustments are necessary. Dentures wear out over time, and as your bone changes, you may find that your appliance doesn’t fit as well as it used to. Remove them nightly, clean them thoroughly, and talk to your dentist if you’re always relying on denture adhesive.
I’ve frequently heard seniors ask, “Can I just get all of my teeth pulled out and replaced with dentures?” While this may seem like a straightforward solution, it’s the standard of care to preserve your natural teeth as long as possible. Even the best denture will never feel or function the same as your natural smile.
The Truth About Dental Insurance Coverage
Although dental insurance is another beast entirely, it’s one that significantly impacts seniors’ access to dental care and, ultimately, their health. The truth of the matter is that most dental insurance coverage amounts haven’t increased with the cost of living in over 40 years; however, there are some more affordable dental care options out there. If you don’t have coverage and tend to have fairly healthy teeth, it might be worth paying out of pocket for your check-ups instead of purchasing an additional private dental plan. Many dentists’ offices are starting to offer private in-house memberships, which are comparable (and easier to understand) than 3rd party insurance plans.