Frequently Asked Questions About Senior Dental Care
Frequently Asked Questions About Senior Dental Care

1. As a senior adult, do I really need to be concerned about cavities any more?
Actually, cavities can be more frequent in older adults for a number of reasons. Life-long exposure to fluoride through community water supplies and toothpaste may not have been a possibility for some of our oldest seniors -- it simply wasn't available when these seniors were growing up. Also, adults are more likely to have decay around older fillings.

In addition, cavities in the tooth root are more common, as gum tissue begins to recede in older adults exposing the tooth root surface to decay. Also, dry mouth, resulting from the natural aging process itself and certain medications and diseases, can lead to more tooth decay. Without an adequate amount of saliva, food particles can't be washed away and the acids produced by plaque can't be neutralized.

2. My teeth have suddenly become very sensitive to both hot and cold, but my mouth is otherwise healthy. What could cause this?
Receding gum tissue could be the cause of sensitivity. As gum tissue pulls back away from teeth, the root of the tooth becomes exposed. A soft tissue graft would be the recommended treatment. Other treatment suggestions might include using a fluoride mouth rinse or switching to a toothpaste made specifically for sensitive teeth.

Visit your dentist to so that you can be diagnosed and treated properly.

3. Can braces still be an option for the senior adult?
There is no age limit for correcting misaligned (crooked) teeth. The mechanical process used to move teeth is the same at any age. So the benefits of orthodontic treatments such as braces are available to both children and adults who wish to improve their appearance and bite. The main differences between treatments in adults and children is that certain corrections in adults may require more than braces alone and the treatments may take longer because adult bones are no longer growing.

4. Are seniors more at risk for oral cancer?
Yes, the risk of oral cancer increases with age. Any lesion found on the tongue or anywhere in the mouth needs to be examined and closely watched. Smoking or drinking alcoholic beverages is associated with oral cancer.

5. Is there anything that can be done to make my loose teeth more secure?
First, visit a periodontist (a dentist who specializes in diagnosing, treating, and preventing diseases of the soft tissues of the mouth [the gums] and the supporting structures [bones] of the teeth [both natural and man-made teeth]). He or she will examine your condition, review your oral hygiene practices, and discuss your medical history. Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, can contribute to the problem of loose teeth.

6. How does long-term smoking impact oral health?
For one, smoking increases your risk of oral cancer. Other oral health consequences include delayed healing following tooth extraction and periodontal treatment, increased bone loss within the jaw, bad breath, and tooth discoloration.

7. Can dentists treat the elderly with moderate dementia?
The ideal time to take care of all necessary dental treatments is soon after the person has been diagnosed with dementia. This way, only easier maintenance treatments will be all that is needed as the person ages. However, the elderly with moderate levels of dementia can be treated and can receive anesthesia. Setting a dental appointment early in the day, when the person with dementia is most alert, may be best. Also, the caregiver needs to communicate to the person with dementia that he or she is going to the dentist and state the reason for the visit.

8. If an older person has few or no dental problems or even no teeth, does he or she need to see the dentist?
Even if you do not have teeth or only have had a few dental problems, it is wise -- especially as you age -- to visit your dentist at least once a year for a comprehensive oral exam. At this visit your dentist can look for signs of oral cancer as well as for any other oral health or medical problems in the mouth, head, and neck areas.

9. My dentures don't feel as comfortable as they once did. What should I do?
First, never try to change the shape of your dentures yourself in the hopes of making them fit better. You can cause damage that will make the denture unrepairable.

Your gums and the bone supporting them changes shape as you age, so your dentures may begin to feel loose.

Because dentures are made to fit perfectly, if you do feel a looseness, chances are your dentures will need to be adjusted to make them fit properly again as your mouth shape changes. See your dentist as soon as possible. In an emergency, use a denture adhesive to keep your dentures stable until your appointment.

10. I find it difficult to chew and swallow certain foods.
You may be experiencing these difficulties simply because you have tooth decay, ill-fitting dentures, dry mouth, or another condition that is very likely to be treatable. Maintaining proper nutrition is important not only for your oral health but for your overall health too. To maintain overall good nutrition, follow this advice:

Eat a variety of foods from the five food groups (milk and dairy, breads and cereals, meats and dried beans, fruits, and vegetables).
Choose a diet with plenty of grain products, fruits and vegetables.
Choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
Choose a diet moderate in sugars.
Choose a diet moderate in salt.
If you drink alcoholic beverages, drink in moderation.
You may need a multivitamin or mineral supplement. Check with your doctor.

11. Can medications that I am taking affect my dental treatment?
Yes, medications can impact your dental health. In fact, each time you visit your dentist, be sure to give him or her complete, up-to-date information about any recent hospitalizations or surgery, recent illnesses and/or any changes in your health since your last visit, and any changes in any medications you may be taking. Regarding medications, be sure to write down and bring with you a list of the names of current drugs you are taking, their dosages, and frequency of use. Include any over-the-counter products you may be using as well as any herbal products and supplements. All of these issues will need to be considered by your dentist in order to devise a safe and effective treatment plan for you.

12. I've heard that dental implants are an alternative to dentures. What should I know about implants?
First, you should know that today's older adults are keeping their natural teeth longer. According to a recent survey by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the rate of toothlessness in individuals aged 55 to 64 has dropped 60% since 1960. This is attributed to scientific developments as well as to a growing awareness of good oral hygiene practices.

Despite this good news, some older adults do suffer from tooth loss and will need dentures, bridges, or an alternative -- such as implants. Dental implants are replacement tooth roots. Implants provide a strong foundation for fixed (permanent) or removable replacement teeth that are made to match your natural teeth.

Not everyone is a candidate for dental implants. Patients should have healthy gums and enough bone to hold the implant. Heavy smokers, people suffering from uncontrolled chronic disorders -- such as diabetes or heart disease -- or patients who have had radiation therapy to the head-neck area need to be evaluated on an individual basis. Talk to your dentist to see if implants may be an option for you.

13. I have arthritis in my hands and have difficulty cleaning my teeth. What can you recommend?
There are several adaptations that you can try that should make caring for your teeth easier to accomplish if you have arthritis. To increase the size of the toothbrush handle, try wrapping the handle with tape or insert the handle into a rubber ball or into a bicycle grip handle. To increase the length of the toothbrush handle, tape two tongue depressors, popsicle/ice cream bar sticks, or small plastic or wooden rulers to the toothbrush handle. Another option that might offer assistance is to attach a wide elastic band to the toothbrush under which the person would slide their hand. Finally, a battery- or electric-powered toothbrush might be the most appropriate solution, depending on the dexterity of the person.

A variety of flossing aids are available from your local drug store. Ask your dentist or dental hygienist which type of product might be best suited for you.

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