4 Signs of Dental and Oral Trouble for Seniors

What goes “snap” in the night? Unfortunately, it can be a snapping jaw, painful sore tooth, or other oral woe. Any type of agony is troubling, but tooth pain can be especially distressing, especially after nightfall.

About that time someone realizes the discomfort is unbearable is when emergency dental services are hard to come by (and expensive). For seniors, problems associated with dental care are on the rise, too, because more elders have their natural teeth compared with just a generation ago.

This is good news but, as it turns out, also the source of more oral troubles in this population.

As a home health care provider, you might be the first line of defense for your clients when it comes to managing dental issues. By paying attention and coming harnessed with information, you can be a useful resource for your client to address oral health care.

Dental Hygiene and Seniors

As we age, our oral chemistry alters. Cells renew at a slower rate. Tissues become thinner and less elastic, and our bones aren’t as dense. 

In addition, our immune system weakens, making us more prone to infection. And if we do become ill, it can take longer to bounce back. 

When someone’s mouth environment shifts, they might see signs of it in their gums and teeth. Sometimes, these changes signal underlying health issues that need further attention. 

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1. Dry Mouth: As we age, our mouth produces less saliva. Food particles consequently don’t break down as quickly. This is why older teeth hold on to globs of white goo between teeth and dental work. Yuck!

Saliva helps protect teeth from decay while also contributing to gum health, too. When someone produces less saliva, it might make them prone to cavities and gum disease. It can also lead to frequently dry cracked lips and even fissured tongues. 

Dry mouth alters how food tastes and ease of swallowing, too. Health conditions such as diabetes and stroke (and the use of medications to manage other conditions) contribute to the production of less saliva as well. 

2021-Q1-Nurses-4 Signs of Dental And Oral Trouble In Seniors-32. Cavities: Decay occurs when plaque in the mouth converts the sugars and starches from food into acid. Acid attacks the tooth enamel, which leads to cavities. 

Per the American Dental Association (ADA), more seniors are experiencing tooth decay in their older years than ever before. “According to a 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, approximately 18% of adults aged 65 years or older with retained natural teeth had untreated caries, and by 2009-2012 that number jumped to 68%.”

2021-Q1-Nurses-4 Signs of Dental And Oral Trouble In Seniors-43. Gum Disease:  Receding gums occur when gum tissue pulls away from the teeth, exposing the base (or “root”) of the tooth. This makes it easier for bacteria to get into the tooth and lead to decay and inflammation. 

Sometimes, overaggressive brushing causes receding gums, but diseases such as periodontal disease or gingivitis are more frequently the culprits. In addition to the receding gums, a prominent sign of gum illness is the appearance of excessive bleeding during brushing. 

4. Lining of the Mouth: The mucosa is the membrane lining inside the mouth. As we age (and depending on our behaviors) oral cancer may appear here. 

The use of tobacco and excessive alcohol as well as family history and extreme sun exposure can put someone at higher risk of oral cancer. Alterations of the mucosa such as swelling, lumps, bumps and rough spots merit attention, however, no matter the medical history of the elder. 

There are other possible symptoms of oral cancer you can share from Web MD. One of the more common is the presence of white, red, or speckled patches in the mouth. If any of these issues persist, they should be looked at by a dentist.

Preventative Care Is Key

Be sure to talk about the importance of dental care with your clients. Discuss the need to be vigilant to note changes in their mouth and teeth. Review the maintenance of good oral hygiene, including: 

  • Brushing both morning and night
  • Flossing once a day
  • Keeping dentures clean
  • Scheduling regular dental visits
  • Reporting any changes in the teeth or mouth

For some seniors, the ability to keep vigilant with their oral health can be a challenge with changes in underlying health conditions and medications. In addition, seniors suffering from cognitive decline will struggle to keep to a hygiene regimen.

Dental Care Issues

Cavities, oral cancer, and other matters of dental hygiene are routinely reviewed during regular dental visits. Unfortunately, many seniors do not have dental insurance, and may not be able to afford the out-of-pocket expenses of dental care. 

The CDC found that slightly less than one-third of adults aged 65 and over have dental insurance. Adults 65 and over had one dental visit in the past 12 months, and for some seniors, regular dental visits were even less frequent or likely. 

There are dental insurance options for older Americans, but they must be considered based on individual needs and budgets. Investopedia breaks down their picks of the top seven dental insurance carriers for 2021, offering a good place for seniors to explore what’s available. 

The mouth has sometimes been described as a mirror that reflects the greater health of the individual. Certainly, whatever is going on inside someone’s body will eventually manifest in the state of the mouth!

We spend a lifetime taking our mouth and teeth for granted. Yet it’s how our body receives nourishment. We send our thoughts to the world by way of our mouth and express our happiest moments when our lips curve up into the smile. Provide your clients with useful information about good oral hygiene, and alert them to possible issues and changes that may arise. Seniors can make better decisions about their oral health if they are armed with better knowledge.