Dr. Michael Handler

4 Common Senior Dental Care Challenges

By Dr. Michael Handler

4 Common Senior Dental Care Challenges

Canadian seniors are exceptionally fortunate to have comprehensive free healthcare for most medical conditions, but sadly the provincial programs don’t usually cover any form of senior dental care. The percentage of the population older than 65 is expected to go up to 18% by 2021, according to the Canadian Dental Association. The need for a healthy smile is equally important in your seventies as it is in the younger years, however, and we encourage seniors to take steps to ensure their teeth are as healthy as they can be.

Here are the common dental issues facing seniors:

Dry Mouth

Few seniors are fortunate enough to not take regular medication, and the fact is over 400 medicines contribute to dryness of the mouth. This heightens the patient’s risk for gum disease and cavities, because producing saliva continuously helps to control the bacteria in the mouth. Without enough moisture, viruses and fungi reproduce unchecked, which can speed up tooth decay.

You might not be able to completely avoid the dry mouth challenge, but you can maintain good senior dental care with regular brushing and flossing, along with bi-annual checkups. The better your oral hygiene levels, the less chance bacteria have to cause damage or trigger gum disease. Avoiding coffee, alcohol and smoking, and chew sugar-free gum to stimulate the production of saliva.

Poor Nutrition

Eating the wrong foods, or not enough of the right ones, can help cause oral health problems like gum disease and cavities. Developing these issues can, in turn, lead to poor nutrition, because seniors who struggle to chew often opt for soft foods rather than healthier fare.

Sugar, a perennial favourite in the senior community, is the #1 cause of tooth decay, with starchy foods that get stuck in the teeth following a close second along with coffee and alcohol. So before you tuck into that Tim’s coffee and donut, think of the current and future state of your oral health!

Try and ensure you eat foods from major food groups, such as fruit, lean protein and whole grains, and drink enough water to wash food residue down.

Chronic Conditions

Various chronic health conditions can aggravate senior dental care challenges. These include diabetes, heart disease and pneumonia, according to SeniorLiving.org. All common medical problems among seniors, each condition has its own particular cause and effect on dental health:

  • Diabetes: Developing high blood sugar as a result of either Type I or Type II diabetes can increase the risk of gum disease. Comparatively, the existence of severe gum disease can hinder the patient’s ability to absorb insulin, causing more severe diabetes symptoms.
  • Heart disease: Medical science has long believed there’s a relationship between heart disease and oral health, although the jury is still out on exactly how much they impact each other. Regardless of whether they are right or not, patients who are unable to eat wholesome foods are liable to consume soft, starchy and often high-fat items that really don’t benefit a heart trying to stay healthy.
  • Respiratory illnesses: Published findings show a link in older adults between oral health and illnesses such as pneumonia, caused by drawing bacterial droplets from the mouth into the lungs. A study published in the Future of Dentistry report from the American Dental Association determined that good oral hygiene in caregiver situations could prevent 1 in 10 of the pneumonia-related deaths in nursing homes.

These are not the only medical conditions thought to have a relationship with dental care, and many of them are more often found in seniors than younger patients.

Transportation and Mobility

Transportation and mobility are major difficulties preventing patients getting the senior dental care they need. Many older Canadians don’t have cars, and public transport doesn’t always go where they need it to. A large number have ill health or difficulty walking, so even if transportation is available it’s not always possible to keep dental appointments when they make them, even if they have the insurance or financial means to get care.

Patients in assisted living or nursing care rely on the staff to identify their needs and make arrangements, and this is spotty at best. Often, families and caregivers don’t realize the need for dental care, and missing or broken teeth affect the patient’s self-confidence when it comes to going out in public. Many of these issues are more likely to prevent seniors accessing dental treatment than insurance or finance-related difficulties, but with care and understanding we can address each one of your concerns. After all, seniors too deserve to have a healthy, happy smile and enjoy their lives.


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