Good oral hygiene, often associated with fresh breath and pearly whites, has a greater impact on overall health than many people realize – especially when it comes to older adults. For those dealing with multiple prescription medications, mobility issues, cognitive decline or even a prolonged hospital stay, oral health is often compromised. This, in turn, could lead to cavities and serious gum disease that introduce dangerous bacteria into the bloodstream.
In recognition of Oral Health Month in April, we reached out to Dr. Homam Albaghdadi, Associate Dentist at Mount Sinai Hospital, to better understand the unique challenges facing older adults. One of the most common issues, he says, is “dry mouth” – a condition often triggered by taking multiple medications – which results in reduced saliva flow.
“Since saliva is a natural mouth cleanser which helps to neutralize harmful bacteria, dry mouth can lead to root cavities, which occur under the gum and tend to be more aggressive than crown cavities,” says Dr. Albaghdadi. “Dry mouth can also affect a person’s tolerance for dental treatments, and makes denture-wearing quite painful.”
Dependence on multiple prescription drugs, including blood thinners and osteoporosis medications, can also impact the process of healing after an invasive dental procedure (such as a pulled tooth or root canal) and can contribute to complications including excessive bleeding or bone infections.
Other age-related decline may also get in the way of proper oral hygiene, says Dr. Albaghdadi. Mobility issues, for example, may impact a person’s ability to stand for a length of time or even get to the bathroom. A stay in hospital tends to throw off regular hygiene routines, including oral care. Older adults facing cognitive deterioration may not be able to remember when they last saw a dentist, or insist to a caregiver that they’ve already cleaned their teeth even though they have not. In some cases, people may even become aggressive if a caregiver attempts to help with oral care.
Although many of these barriers are beyond a person’s control, Dr. Albaghdadi maintains that it is essential to make oral hygiene a priority and recommends seeking advice from a dentist on solutions that may help. Otherwise, when the condition of teeth gets bad enough, usually due to serious gum disease, the teeth either fall out or have to be removed. Older adults who lose their teeth introduce a host of health concerns to their lives, such as a decreased ability to eat food, and an increased risk of infection.
“Our goal is to help our patients keep as many of their adult teeth as possible for as long as possible,” says Dr. Albaghdadi. “There’s definitely a correlation between the number you have and your life expectancy and level of health.”