Very few people enjoy a visit to the dentist, whether it’s the high-pitched whir of the dentist drill or the pain that can be felt from an invasive dental procedure there are more than enough reasons to put off booking that appointment.
However, with the Australian Dental Association recently finding that one in four older Australians have untreated tooth decay, and more than half have gum disease it’s crucial that over 60s are making the effort to care for their dental health.
With figures such as these, the importance of oral health and its impact on overall health and wellbeing cannot be understated and given recent research that highlights the link between gum disease and chronic health conditions such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease, Australians are being encouraged to prioritise their dental health.
Advisory Services Manager, Engagement & Advocacy Executive, Dr Sarah Raphael from the Australian Dental Association NSW Branch stressed that “dental health is important throughout the lifespan, from babies to seniors!” but that for seniors it is crucial to avoid negative health impacts.
“During the senior years we want to avoid all the negative health impacts that we can to stay healthier and more independent for longer. This is in addition to all the things mentioned above, being comfortable, pain-free, able to eat well, speak and smile and have dignity,” Raphael said.
Clinical Director at Bupa Dental Care, Dr Kavita Lobo stressed that “it’s important seniors understand that good oral hygiene is about more than just a beautiful smile or a cavity-free mouth”.
“It’s an essential part of their overall health regime,” Lobo said.
With the link between poor dental health and the onset of chronic health conditions among seniors clearly evident, Starts at 60 spoke further with Dr Sarah Raphael and Dr Kavita Lobo about the best practices for looking after your teeth and avoiding the negative consequences of poor oral hygiene.
Good dental health goes far beyond simply having a dazzling smile free of cavities, as mentioned above oral health plays a major role in overall health, and negligence in this area can trigger chronic conditions such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
The negative consequences of poor oral hygiene can be alarming, however, Raphael claims that if seniors look after their dental health early they can avoid problems down the road.
“One of the biggest messages is for them to look after their dental health very well while they are still sprightly,” she said.
“This means that as they enter the latter years they are starting off from a basis of good health that requires maintenance rather than already experiencing significant disease that declines very rapidly.”
Raphael also discussed the more immediate issues that can arise when oral health is not made a priority.
“The bacterial load in the mouth of people with poor oral health (decay and gum disease) has an impact on chronic diseases. Poor oral health causes pain and discomfort that can be very distressing and lead to difficulties eating, sleeping, speaking and smiling,” she said.
“With poor oral health it is difficult to eat a nutritious diet – so there may be weight loss issues and we know that this can increase the risk of falls and hospitalisations.
“There are also many social impacts, making it difficult for seniors to interact with others due to missing teeth/bad breath etc. Oral cancer can also go unnoticed in seniors as it can be painless and if their oral hygiene is not attended to regularly the signs may be missed.”
Lobo also highlighted the importance of seniors looking after their teeth given that “poor oral health can be linked to a number of serious health problems including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even Alzheimer’s”.
However, Lobo pointed out several lesser know oral health issues that can impact seniors.
“Like all of the bones in our bodies, teeth can weaken with age and tissue in our mouths becomes thinner which can lead to reduced saliva production (a natural protector of our teeth), thus increasing the risk of cavities and infection,” Lobo said.
“People over 60 are also more likely to have older fillings or false teeth which require routine care as they can deteriorate over time and cause problems.”
Medications that over 60s may be taking can also impact dental health.
“Additionally tooth or gum pain can be masked by medications they are taking for other problems meaning sometimes issues go undetected or untreated for too long,” Lobo said.
“If we let teeth deteriorate and live with ongoing pain, eating habits can suffer which can lead to unhealthy weight loss or even malnutrition.”
For most people, the fear and anxiety of visiting the dentist are enough to make them adopt a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to their oral health.
But for seniors, their poor dental health could be down to issues of access and reliance on others for assistance.
“It is not that they actively neglect their oral health but that it can become difficult for them to access dental care (not driving anymore/less mobile etc) and perform routine daily oral hygiene for their mouth, teeth, and dentures,” Raphael said.
Raphael explains that as we become older the difficulty of managing everyday tasks causes some things to take a back seat.
“Once they become dependent on others to assist, oral health often slips down the priority list,” she said.
Lobo suggests keeping reminders or a diary to stay on top of your dental appointments to avoid missing out on crucial dental treatment.
“We encourage people to put reminders in their diaries or phones to ensure they know whether they have visited a dentist in the past year and if not, schedule on in with their friendly local dentist,” Lobo said.
Lobo also pointed out that changes “to your teeth can happen very slowly” and regular check-ups are important to avoid bigger problems in the future.
“By the time you seek help, a small problem can turn into a big one,” she said.
When it comes to maintaining good oral health in your later years, both Lobo and Raphael suggest keeping things simple at the bathroom sink.
“It’s the good old basic things – performing oral hygiene twice daily – toothbrushing with fluoride toothpaste, cleaning dentures and leaving them out at night, eating a diet low in added sugar, drinking tap water as the main drink and staying well hydrated (have a water bottle available at all times),” Raphael said.
Raphael also stresses the importance of prevention over cure and suggests regular dentist visits to stay ahead of possible problems.
“Ensuring that they have regular preventive dental visits in their senior years is the best way to avoid these consequences,” she said.
A dental care plan is of utmost importance when somebody is unable to look after themselves, according to Raphael.
“Once they become dependent on carers to assist with or perform their daily hygiene measures, it is imperative that there is an oral care plan in place,” she said.
“Their dental practitioner can help with recommending what measures are needed. As a senior is monitored it may become necessary to start simplifying their dental requirements to ensure that the state of their dentition is manageable as their independence declines.”
Lobo also suggests that “simple habits like brushing and flossing properly along with drinking plenty of water with responsible consumption of alcohol and sugary treats can help ensure you’ll have a healthy smile to show off for many years to come”.
“Seniors should also consider chewing on a sugar-free gum for 10-15 minutes after meals – chewing gum makes your mouth produce more saliva,” Lobo said.
“Along with cleaning your teeth and gums, dentists carry out an oral cancer screening during check-ups to ensure any problems are picked up before they become major issues.
“For older Australians, it also pays to look at their diet and discuss with families, their dentist or medical professional whether they might be consuming too much sugar which can lead to tooth decay and other mouth issues.”
Finally, Lobo stresses that by remaining “vigilant about oral hygiene and maintaining good dental habits, you can help your teeth last a lifetime”.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.