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Four Myths About Seniors and Oral Health

As we grow older, tooth and gum problems are more common. Some seniors think it’s inevitable that they’ll lose some or all of their teeth, or have chronic gum disease. But good oral hygiene and oral care lowers the risk of dental problems—so important because we know today that poor oral health is linked with malnutrition, a number of diseases, social isolation, and even dementia.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, recently dispelled several myths that could stand in the way of a seniors accessing prevention and treatment of tooth and gum diseases.

Myth #1: Only children get cavities.

Fact: Tooth decay can develop at any age. It can happen as long as you have natural teeth. Dental plaque—a sticky film of bacteria—can build up on teeth, and produce acids that, over time, eat away at the tooth’s hard outer surface and create a cavity. Even teeth that already have fillings are at risk. Plaque can build up underneath a chipped filling and cause new decay. And if your gums have pulled away from the teeth (called gum recession), the exposed tooth roots are also vulnerable to decay.

But you can protect your teeth against decay. Here’s how:

  • Use toothpaste that contains fluoride. Fluoride can prevent tooth decay and also heal early decay. And it is just as helpful for adults as it is for children. Be sure to brush twice daily. This will help remove dental plaque that forms on teeth. Drinking fluoridated water also helps prevent tooth decay in adults.
  • Floss regularly to remove plaque between teeth. Or use a device such as a special brush or wooden or plastic pick recommended by a dental professional.
  • See your dentist for routine checkups. If you are at a higher risk for tooth decay (for example, if you have a dry mouth because of medicines you take), your dentist or dental hygienist may give you a fluoride treatment such as a varnish or foam during the office visit. Or, the dentist may tell you to use a fluoride gel or mouth rinse at home.

Myth #2: Gum disease is just a part of growing older.

Fact: You can prevent gum disease; it does not have to be a part of getting older. Gum (periodontal) disease is an infection of the gums and surrounding tissues that hold teeth in place. Gum disease develops when plaque—a sticky film of bacteria—is allowed to build up along and under the gum line.

The two forms of gum disease are:

  • Gingivitis, a mild form that is reversible with good oral hygiene. In gingivitis, the gums become red, swollen and can bleed easily.
  • Periodontitis, a more severe form that can damage the soft tissues and bone that support teeth. If it is not treated, the bones, gums, and tissue that support the teeth are destroyed. The teeth may eventually become loose and have to be removed.

The good news is that gum disease can be prevented. It does not have to be a part of growing older. With thorough brushing and flossing and regular professional cleanings by your dentist, you can reduce your risk of developing gum disease as you age. Regular dental checkups, eating a well-balanced diet and avoiding tobacco use also lower the risk.

Myth #3: Dry mouth is a natural part of the aging process. You just have to learn to live with it.

Fact: Dry mouth, the condition of not having enough saliva, or spit, to keep the mouth wet, is not a part of the aging process itself. Without enough saliva, chewing, eating, swallowing and even talking can be difficult; dry mouth also increases the risk for tooth decay, and makes dentures uncomfortable. So it’s important to find the cause of dry mouth so you can get relief.

Oder adults are also more likely to have certain conditions that can lead to oral dryness, such as:

  • Side effects of medicines
  • Certain diseases that affect the salivary glands
  • Radiation therapy or chemotherapy used to treat cancer
  • Nerve damage caused by injury to the head or neck that damages the nerves that tell salivary glands to make saliva

If you think you have dry mouth, see a dentist or physician, who can try to determine what is causing your dry mouth and what treatments might be helpful. For example, if dry mouth is caused by a medicine, your physician might change your medicine or adjust the dosage.

Your dentist or physician also might suggest that you keep your mouth wet by using artificial saliva, sold in most drug stores/pharmacies. Some people benefit from sucking sugarless hard candy or chewing sugarless gum.

Myth #4: If you don’t use chewing tobacco, you don’t need to worry about oral cancer.

Fact: It’s not just smokeless tobacco (“dip” and “chew”) that can increase your chances of getting oral cancer.

The likelihood of oral cancer increases with age. Most people with these cancers are older than 55 when the cancer is found. Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarette smoking, puts you at risk. Heavy alcohol use also increases your chances of developing the disease. And using tobacco plus alcohol poses a much greater risk than using either substance alone. Recent research also has linked infection with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) with some oral cancers.

It’s important to catch oral cancer early, because treatment works best before the disease has spread. Pain is usually not an early symptom of the disease. So be on the lookout for any changes in your mouth that last longer than two weeks, such as:

  • A sore, irritation, lump or thick patch in the mouth, lip, or throat
  • A white or red patch in the mouth
  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness in the tongue or other areas of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Pain in one ear without hearing loss

Most often, these symptoms do not mean cancer. An infection or other problem can cause the same symptoms. But it’s important to get them checked out.

Source: The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (, adapted by IlluminAge AgeWise

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