Clinical health information Oral health for older people May 14 2019
Judith Ngai Judith Ngai Health writer

If you're over 50 years old, you should be taking extra care of your oral health.

Your teeth and gums are likely to become more susceptible to problems you age so it is important to take care of them all through your life. The good news is that gum disease and tooth loss aren't an inevitable consequence of ageing. Most people in Australia will turn 50 with most, if not all, of their teeth. By being vigilant about oral hygiene and maintaining good dental habits, you can help your teeth last a lifetime.

Why older people need extra care with their oral health

Taking care of teeth and gums becomes even more important as you age for a number of reasons.

Teeth can become brittle

Teeth can become brittle as you get older and you may be more likely to crack or chip a tooth and ‘open up’ your teeth to decay-causing bacteria. This ‘opens up’ your teeth to decay-causing bacteria. Teeth can be damaged through incidents such as an accident, by biting on hard foods, or by grinding teeth together. The first sign of a cracked tooth is likely to be pain on biting. 

Saliva production often reduces

 Saliva production tends to fall as you get older. This can lead to dry mouth and can contribute to tooth decay. Saliva helps wash away the food particles, reduce the amount of decay-causing bacteria, and neutralise damaging acids these bacteria produce. It also helps rebuild the enamel. Many medications commonly taken by people as they get older, such as some blood pressure medications, may reduce saliva production as well.

Health conditions associated with age can put oral health at risk

Some health conditions that tend to affect older people  can also increase the risk of tooth problems and gum disease.

  • People with some chronic conditions have lower resistance to infection, which could make them more susceptible to oral health problems than people without these conditions. These problems can include gum diseases such as gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums that makes them bleed easily. If not managed in time, gingivitis can lead to periodontitis, a more serious chronic bacterial infection of the gums that can damage bone and tissue supporting the teeth, causing tooth loss.
  • Sjögren’s syndrome –this is a fairly common condition in  older women, where the body destroys its own moisture-producing glands leading to dry eyes and dry mouth.
  • The hormonal changes brought about by menopause in women may reduce saliva production. Menopause may also make the jawbone thinner as a result of bone loss, which may lead to tooth loss.

Beating dry mouth

About 25 percent of older people don’t produce enough saliva and experience a dry mouth. If you are one of these, it’s particularly important to keep up with good oral hygiene habits in addition to the tips suggested here to help you manage dry mouth specifically.

  • Check with your doctor if any medications you are taking could be contributing to your dry mouth – your doctor may be able to change or lower the dose of these medications if this is the case.
  • Avoid substances that are likely to increase mouth dryness, such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, and spicy foods.
  • Check with your doctor about using dry mouth products to help lubricate your mouth or provide artificial saliva. If your dry mouth condition is particularly severe, your doctor can also prescribe medication to help stimulate saliva production.
  • Use an anti-bacterial mouthwash to help prevent tooth decay. 

Smoking and oral health

Besides staining your teeth and making them look unattractive, smoking has been linked with damage to  gums and the lining of the mouth due to reduced blood flow. This can increase your risk of tooth decay and gum disease. Smoking may also change the consistency of your saliva which could compromise its protective function.

Quitting smoking can not only contribute to the health of your teeth and gums, but also help reduce your risk of developing mouth cancer – smokers are 9 times more likely to develop oral cancer than non-smokers.

Tips for caring for your teeth

It’s important to maintain good oral health at any age. For people over 50, revisit what you do and revise it to help you keep your teeth for life.

Here are more tips to help prevent common problems and help keep your teeth and gums in good shape:

  • Drink tap water – in most places across Australia, tap water contains fluoride. Fluoride helps protect teeth by slowing down the enamel break-down caused by acids as well as helping to rebuild tooth enamel. While bottled water also helps quench your thirst, keep in mind it is less likely to contain teeth-protecting fluoride.
  • Limit consumption of sugary and acidic drinks and snacks – this includes snacks such as flavoured milk-based drinks, fruit juices, fruit bars and muesli bars. Be mindful of how often you eat and drink these foods throughout the day. This is just as important for tooth decay as the amount of sugar or acid the food contains. Consider snacking on  ‘tooth-friendly’ foods such as cheese, nuts, apples, carrots and celery.
  • Limit alcohol consumption – alcohol can contribute to tooth decay and dry mouth. and is also a risk factor for oral cancers.
  • Brush your teeth twice a day – you need to brush your teeth for 2–3 minutes each time. Make sure you clean every surface of your teeth in a systematic way. If possible, use a soft-bristled toothbrush with a small head so it is easy to reach all areas of your mouth. Electric toothbrushes are an alternative. Brush your tongue as well for fresher breath.
  • Brush up on your brushing technique – how you brush your teeth is important too. Incorrect brushing can lead to receding gums (which is irreversible) as well as gum disease. Receding gums make you look ‘long in the tooth' and exposes the roots of your teeth, which are especially vulnerable to decay. Ask your dentist about the best way to clean your teeth.
  • Floss between your teeth every day – flossing removes food from between your teeth where a toothbrush may not reach. If you find using floss difficult, speak to your dentist about the best floss-alternative for your teeth.
  • Visit your dentist regularly – everyone’s needs are different, so have a chat to your dentist about how often you need to have your teeth checked by them based on the condition of your mouth, teeth and gums. Your dentist can clean your teeth to remove any plaque build-up you may have missed that has hardened into tartar, and may also give your teeth a fluoride rub.
  • Consider chewing on a sugar-free gum after meals – chewing gum makes your mouth produce more saliva.

Further information

Australian Dental Association
www.ada.org.au

Bupa Dental
www.bupa.com.au/dental

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Judith Ngai Judith Ngai Health writer Judith is a pharmacist and health content specialist.

Australian Dental Association. Your dental health. [Online; accessed Nov 2016] Available from: www.ada.org.au

State Government of Victoria. Better Health Channel. Dry mouth syndrome [Online] 2015 [Last updated Jul 2015; accessed Nov 2016] Available from: www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au