Just like other parts of the body adapt as we get older, there are plenty of changes going on in our mouths too that can impact our teeth and oral health as we age.
Dental Health Week is here for another year and the Australian Dental Association (ADA) is reminding older Aussies about the importance of basic oral hygiene measures to maintain good oral health.
Data from Australia’s latest Oral Health Tracker shows that a quarter of all Aussies have untreated tooth decay and that tooth decay is also the most chronic disease in the country. What’s more, 48 per cent of adults consume too much sugar and nearly half of people only brush their teeth once a day.
“Basically teeth are subject to considerable wear and tear so therefore as we age, they’ll need more maintenance,” Carmelo Bonanno, federal president of the ADA, tells Starts at 60. “It’s certainly being unable to care for your teeth. It means they’re more likely to suffer severe decay or tooth loss.”
Read more: The definitive dental guide for over-60s
While brushing twice a day, flossing daily, eating a nutritious low-sugar diet and visiting the dentist regularly can improve the health of our mouths, there are other issues that are more common in the older population, such as dry mouth. Also known as xerostomia or hyposalivation, dry mouth occurs when the quantity and quality of saliva is reduced.
In many cases it’s the medication people are using that causes their mouths to dry out, with blood pressure medication, cholesterol-lowering tablets, anti-anxiety medication, anti-hypertensives and anticholinergics among the top offenders. Combined with a lack of dental hygiene, dry mouth can be a recipe for disaster for oral health.
“Dry mouth is a very big problem because you’ll see accelerated decay rates,” Bonanno says, warning that it’s also associated with other oral health problems including gum disease, tooth decay and oral thrush because it’s more bacteria friendly.
“As you get older and because of a lot of the medications [people are] taking cause dry mouth, it’s really important that the brushing and flossing or interdental flossing be done before they go to bed. Their mouths are going to be a whole lot healthier.”
The ADA also recommends staying adequately hydrated with water, eating chewy foods to stimulate saliva flow, limiting diuretics such as caffeine and alcohol, avoiding smoking, reducing sugary and processed foods and keeping away from mouthwashes that contain alcohol. Dentists may also be able to suggest products and stronger fluoride toothpaste to protect the teeth.
And while avoiding alcohol and smoking can decrease dry mouth, it may also reduce the risk of oral cancer. The longer people drink or smoke, the more at risk they are of experiencing the cancer, with data showing 59 per cent of mouth cancer is caused by smoking and 31 per cent are the result of excessive alcohol consumption.
Read more: The health conditions that cause bad breath
Oral cancer can impact the lips, tongue and floor of the mouth and if you notice unusual red or white areas on the soft tissue of the mouth, ulcers with raised edges or anything that hasn’t gone away after two weeks, it’s important to talk to a dentist or health professional as soon as possible as early detection can save lives.
Similarly, while unhealthy foods and drinks may be cheaper or easier to prepare, consuming too much of them isn’t going to help your mouth and they’re something too many older people are including in their diets too much.
“They’re getting a lot more processed foods, excessive amounts of sugar, sweets, cakes, that sort of thing, which are delicious but the problem with that is you’ll get accelerated tooth decay,” Bonanno says. “The problem with an improper diet is they’re going to have problems with other medical issues like diabetes. Things where they’re just packing on too much weight, they’re not getting enough exercise because a lot of them are bed ridden or just unable to get around.”
Instead, try cutting out snacks in between meals, consume less sugar and replace them with healthy and more wholesome foods.
“What I’m talking about are the fundamentals of good health anyway,” Bonanno adds.
Always talk to your dentist about your oral health as they will be able to offer advice based on your individual circumstances.
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