While living longer is a great thing, it creates the need for the things you rely on to last as long as you do. This means everything from your financial resources to your mobility, manual dexterity and your teeth.
Oral health for seniors is an important part of overall health. If your mouth and teeth are in good shape you have a better chance of getting the nutritious foods you need and avoiding other complications.
According to an article by Denise Mann on Web MD, there's evidence that oral health and heart health are linked. One theory is that bacteria from a periodontal infection can enter your bloodstream and cause inflammation, making you more vulnerable to heart attacks and strokes. The Mayo Clinic website agrees that "poor oral health combined with other risk factors may contribute to heart disease."
Kathy Medford, nursing manager at the Administrative Offices of Aging and Long Term Care said studies indicate that not enough attention has been paid to dental and oral health, although the situation seems to be gradually improving.
"Many people had no fluoride treatments, no fluoride in water or toothpaste, even though it's the 13th most common element in the world," Medford said. "It's been added to water systems since the 1940s. Crest added fluoride to its toothpaste in 1959. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control it's one of the top 10 good health things that's happened in the last 100 years."
"During World War II was the first real focus on oral health. There were so many people coming into the service with very bad oral care." Modern dentistry and the overall population received a huge push forward towards an emphasis on good oral care habits, she said.
But many factors are involved. "My dad had his first cavity at the age of 78, because he was taking a prescription that caused dry mouth," a risk that is increasing for seniors due to the widespread use of prescription drugs that cause dry mouth as a side effect. The natural process of saliva protecting the teeth can be compromised.
Another challenge to oral health is cost. There's plenty of competition for seniors' dollars, according to Medford.
"Chances are they are going to choose to spend the money on a prescription or going to see a physician, rather than going to a dentist. Working people often get the bonus of having dental coverage included in their employer-based insurance. But seniors have nothing. We know poor dental health contributes to diabetes and cardiovascular disease," she said.
Inflammation from periodontal disease raises blood sugar which contributes to diabetes and makes its management more difficult. She cited a study that indicated good oral care in seniors also resulted in much fewer cases of pneumonia. Bottom line: brushing and flossing promotes improved oral health which in turn improves overall health.
You also need good nutrition. "The foods that are good for us are not soft and mushy. We need good chompers," she said. "Brush and floss your teeth and see your dentist. It's a worthwhile investment," she said.
"There are so many other things that are connected to dental care," agreed Mary Cleveland, program coordinator at the local office of Aging and Long Term Care. "It used to be that it was pretty common for people in their 70s and 80s to have no teeth left, now we see many people who still have their own teeth." Some of the reasons include better dental hygiene, nutrition and adaptive aids such as floss picks and other things to help a senior with dexterity challenges such as joint stiffness or arthritis, still be able to take care of their teeth and gums.
And taking care of yourself is important. Dr. Nannette Goyer, owner of Inland Family Dentistry said to maintain a healthy mouth basically, "You are what you eat. Dental caries and periodontal disease are 100 percent preventable." Some of the culprits are the acids in foods, such as phosphoric acid, used in anything with bubbles, such as pop. She suggested reading, "Food Rules" by Michael Pollan and said, "We've just forgotten how to eat."
She also suggested for those that are over 55, start thinking about retirement; have a five and a ten year plan for your dental health. "Think about your mouth when you're 85. If you have 20-year-old crowns, maybe start getting them replaced now while you have insurance and the stamina for the procedure.
"One of the biggest things in dentistry is the connection to the rest of your body. Your mouth is not just sitting there under your nose, it's really the canary in the coal mine. What's going on in your mouth, such as periodontal disease has an effect on your health."
Karlene Ponti can be reached by calling 509-526-8324 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.