Oral Health Issues and Older Adults

A number of oral health issues become more common with advancing age. Those include gum (periodontal) disease, root and tooth decay, dry mouth, and receding gum lines (which can make teeth sensitive to hot and cold). Any of these problems can cause pain or discomfort, but they may also lead to more serious ailments. Gum disease, for example, has been connected with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and pneumonia. Untreated tooth decay can result in severe, even life-threatening, infections. In addition, an underlying medical condition may make matters worse. Dry mouth is a side effect of many cholesterol, blood pressure, antidepressant, and Alzheimer’s medications, for instance.

Oral health issues can also prevent you from getting important nutrients—and pleasure—from food. Here are common problems, and solutions to try to relieve them:

Dry Mouth

As many as 70 percent of older adults don’t produce sufficient saliva. Dry mouth can cause problems with chewing, swallowing, and other dental issues, including problems with dentures. Workarounds for dry mouth include:

  • Sip beverages while eating.
  • Have regular dental checkups and practice good hygiene (brushing, flossing, and rinsing).
  • Make sure dentures fit properly.
  • Try softer foods, such as chopped meat (or eggs, beans, or cheese) instead of steak; cooked or mashed vegetables instead of raw; and canned fruit (without sugar) instead of fresh.

Swallowing

Physical difficulty with swallowing is called dysphagia and can be serious—consult your doctor. If problems are temporary, consider these potential solutions:

  • Avoid foods that are hard (carrots, nuts), sticky (peanut butter), and those that require a lot of chewing (celery, chips).
  • Try non-solids, such as applesauce, yogurt, and small curd cottage cheese.
  • Purees, smoothies, and blended soups are also good choices.
  • Finely dice meat and cheese.

Dentures

If your loved one wears dentures, there’s a chance you may hit a point when they simply refuse to wear them. (If your loved one just got dentures, it can take time to adjust.) Get their dentist to complete an assessment of oral health to rule out any underlying conditions and check that the dentures fit properly. Poorly fitted dentures can result in difficulty chewing and painful sores. You might also ask your loved one’s dentist about implants or partial implants, which are more costly and require oral surgery but feel more like real teeth. If your loved one absolutely refuses to wear dentures or implants, the last option is to offer soft or pureed foods. Try these tips:

  • Start with softer foods, encouraging slow, careful chewing.
  • Some foods, like raw fruits and vegetables and tough cuts of meat, might always be difficult to chew. However, over time most people can master eating a wide variety of foods.

Oral Hygiene

There are lots of reasons your aging loved one might not be taking care of their mouth properly. Arthritis could make brushing difficult or painful. Dementia might cause a person to forget, or to become agitated if someone else tries to help with tooth brushing.

  • Consider the possibility of enlarging (e.g., with a rubber ball) or lengthening (e.g., with a wooden tongue depressor) the toothbrush handle so your parent can brush without help. An electric toothbrush may be easier to use.
  • It may be necessary to take over the oral hygiene yourself. If so, here is a guide to mouth care with a minimum amount of stress.

Regular visits to the dentist are, of course, crucial as well. But the first line of defense is ensuring daily oral hygiene is accomplished.

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