There’s an old saying about the eyes being windows to the soul. But the latest medical and dental research shows that the mouth truly is a window into one’s overall health. Looking out for a loved one’s health means not only keeping an eye on their nutritional intake and physical capabilities, but also on their teeth and gums. Senior dental problems can be common, from dry mouth to periodontal disease, and since oral health directly impacts the health of the rest of the body, these issues need to be taken seriously. Taking care of elderly teeth and gums is just as important as heart or digestive health.
Researchers have found that many diseases in the rest of the body have oral symptoms. With careful examination of the teeth, gums, and tongue, dentists have found evidence of heart or liver disease, eating disorders, diet deficiencies, anemia, diabetes, arthritis, HIV, osteoporosis, and even some autoimmune diseases. “We’re now realizing how they’re interrelated,” explains Dr. Cynthia M. Carlsson, assistant professor of geriatrics and gerontology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
Not only does the mouth tattle on the rest of the body, oral health can actually affect overall health.
For example, recent studies show a correlation between gum disease and heart disease. In fact, risk factors for periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease are similar: smoking, stress, poor diet, excessive weight gain, and low exercise levels. One study suggests that people with severe periodontal disease face double the risk of fatal heart disease, and severe periodontal disease also is associated with higher rates of stroke in some studies. And in certain circumstances, a tooth infection has the potential to cause bacterial endocarditis, which is an infection of the heart’s inner lining or the heart valves. Bacteria in the bloodstream can lodge on the valves or damaged heart tissue, and it could be serious enough to damage, or even destroy, the heart valves.
Periodontitis also appears to share risk factors with chronic degenerative diseases such as ulcerative colitis, and lupus. If a patient has severe gum disease, they may be advised to take antibiotics before undergoing invasive dental procedures such as gum surgery or tooth extraction.
Conversely, other diseases can affect the mouth. For example, diabetes affects healing, so if a diabetic senior has gum disease, it may take quite a bit longer to treat that gum disease.
Researchers now urge both doctors and dentists to be alert to overall health problems when taking care of elderly patients and encourage behaviors that will promote a healthy body from head to toes.
It’s easy for someone to let oral health slide a bit when they’re distracted by other ailments. Perhaps arthritis makes tooth brushing painful, or they can’t stand at the bathroom sink very long. “They’re maybe not quite as vigilant because of their frailty, which leads to a quick decline in oral health, and this could be a detriment to systemic health,” explains Dr. Marsha A. Pyle, director of the Training Center for Geriatric Oral Health and associate dean of Education at the Case School of Dental Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. “You can’t just treat dental disease in isolation.”
It’s best to brush after every meal, says Pyle, not just in the morning and at night. If a patient is at risk of periodontal disease, a dentist can prescribe special toothpastes or gels that help combat dental disease, as well as a daily treatment of high-fluoride gel or anti-bacterial rinse.
Carlsson advises encouraging your loved one to visit their dentist on a regular basis either to have their teeth cleaned or to have their dentures refit. Missing teeth or dentures that don’t fit well can lead to potentially serious senior dental problems. “They may aspirate the food, where food goes down into the lungs and causes pneumonia,” Carlsson says. Besides encouraging good nutrition and regular dental visits, watch him eat to see if he’s avoiding something, and try to notice if any of his teeth look loose or broken.
Ill-fitting dentures can be a culprit in poor nutrition among seniors. When a person loses his natural teeth, his jaw bones begin to shrink away, leading to the jaw continually “remodeling” itself. Dentures that once fit well start slipping. So, a senior may start limiting the kinds of food he eats because it’s too hard to eat, or because he’s embarrassed that others may see him having trouble chewing.
“And it happens during a really important stage of a person’s life. These really frail seniors really need their nutrition,” Pyle says.
If a senior does lose her natural teeth, instead of traditional dentures, she could have implant-supported dentures. These implants are attached to the jaw bone, and a special denture snaps onto the implants. These implant-supported dentures fit more snugly than traditional dentures, so eating different foods shouldn’t be a problem.
A less drastic measure places a softer material on the gum side of traditional dentures so they’re more comfortable.
Just a few decades ago, 50% of all seniors had no natural teeth remaining, according to Pyle. That number has now dropped to 27% of those over age 65. “It’s not a natural part of aging, I’m happy to say,” says Pyle. “People now are aging with a full set of teeth.”
Whether or not your loved one has his natural teeth or dentures, a little help from you can go a long way toward ensuring that he maintains good dental hygiene. A healthy smile may affect a person’s confidence and self-image, but, more importantly, it will pay off not only in her oral health, but in her overall health as well.
According to Pyle, one of the major senior dental problems is dry mouth. “If they have a chronic disease managed by medications, one of the side effects is dry mouth. There are 400 medications known to cause dry mouth,” Pyle says, including medications for common problems such as high blood pressure and depression.
While a small amount of gum recession is normal as seniors age, dry mouth increases that recession dramatically, leaving the mouth more susceptible to root area cavities. And those root surface cavities advance more quickly on the soft surface of a tooth.
There are many ways to treat dry mouth including: