Even if you missed the fact that October was National Dental Hygiene Month, it’s never too late to renew your commitment to oral health. After all, just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean issues like dry mouth and diminished taste are unavoidable.
“It’s tempting to think that aging inevitably leads to health problems,” says Stephen Shuman, DDS, associate professor and director of the Oral Health Services for Older Adults Program at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry in Minneapolis. “However, research continually shows that age itself is often not the culprit for declining health, but other factors that may be more common as we age.”
Take a look at some common misconceptions about aging and oral health, as well as tips to help you maintain a healthy mouth—and thereby boost your quality of life.
Myths and Misconceptions
Myth: Aging and tooth loss go hand in hand.
Fact: Think dentures are a hallmark of aging? Think again. “Tooth loss has been steadily declining over the past 50 years, and we now commonly see people in their 80s, 90s, and even over 100 who have most of their natural teeth,” says Dr. Shuman, who also chairs the Gerontological Society of America’s Oral Health Workgroup. “Clearly, aging itself is not as important as other factors such as oral hygiene, diet, access to dental care, and tobacco use.”
Myth: With age comes dry mouth.
Fact: If you believe this one, you’re in good (albeit misinformed) company. “Many people—including dental professionals—used to think that salivary glands degenerated with age, leading to dry mouth,” says Dr. Shuman. Once again, age is less of a factor in dry mouth than are medications that decrease the flow of saliva.
Myth: Seniors are destined for diminished taste.
Fact: Though Dr. Shuman cites a decrease in the density of taste buds as we age, loss of taste is more often a result of disease, injury, medication, smoking, or poor nutrition. Dry mouth can also contribute to diminished taste. If your dry mouth is caused by medication, a simple adjustment by your doctor could make a tremendous difference to your taste buds.
Normal Effects of Aging
Of course, not all dental problems are caused by disease, medication, or poor oral hygiene. Yellowing, gum recession, bone loss, and increased sensitivity are an unfortunate reality of aging—and such problems can lead to others.
Case in point: According to the American Dental Association (ADA), older adults have a greater risk of cavities because of increased gum recession and dry mouth.
“Gum recession can lead to increased root exposure,” says Dr. Shuman. In addition, loss of saliva and its protective properties puts teeth in jeopardy. “When dry mouth strikes, teeth become much more vulnerable to decay.”
An Ounce of Prevention
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to manage the effects of aging and maintain a healthy mouth.
Cavities: To prevent cavities, the ADA recommends older adults use oscillating toothbrushes and topical fluoride, including daily mouth rinses, high-fluoride toothpaste, and regular fluoride varnish application.
Yellowing: “While some yellowing of the teeth with age is normal, some darkening may be caused by external stain from wine, coffee, tea, cola, or smoking,” says Dr. Shuman, adding that good daily hygiene and regular professional cleanings can keep yellowing under control.
Dry mouth: To combat dry mouth, the ADA recommends drinking water throughout the day and limiting alcohol as well as beverages high in sugar or caffeine, such as juice, soda, tea, and coffee.
Clearly, the importance of preventive dental care cannot be overemphasized.
“The best ways to keep an aging mouth healthy are to keep it as clean as possible by practicing good daily oral hygiene, eating a balanced diet low in sugar and acid, and having regular dental check-ups and cleanings to take care of small dental problems before they become big ones,” emphasizes Dr. Shuman.
After all, dental care isn’t just for fresh breath and sparkling teeth. Oral health is an essential element of healthy aging because it affects your whole body.
“We now know that without good oral health, important aspects of general and health-related quality of life are affected, including nutrition, self-image, social interactions, mental health, and even physical health,” affirms Dr. Shuman.
CHIME IN: How do you maintain oral health as you age?