Ask the Expert: Oral Health as You Age

We all know brushing our teeth twice a day is crucial to keeping our smile bright, but most of us probably don’t understand how staying on top of our dental hygiene can impact our overall health, especially as we age. While going to the dentist may not top the list of our favorite to-dos, it is one of the most important things we can do for our health.

Each year more than 2 million people visit the emergency room because of oral health complications, due to things like cavities or gum disease, and many of those cases could have been prevented through routine dental care and exams. 

Meet Alison Komarek, DDS, with UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement. Dr. Komarek has focused her career on helping people receive dental care to help them live their best lives.

Below, Dr. Komarek answers some of the most pressing questions and concerns older adults have regarding their oral health. 

Q: How often do I need to go to the dentist?

A: Adults, especially those 65 and over, should aim to get to the dentist every six months to one year. Routine dental exams are critical, as they allow your dental team to develop a baseline for your overall oral health, which can be helpful in spotting changes as you age.

As part of a routine dental exam, dental x-rays may be taken, which give your dentist a more comprehensive view of your teeth, gums and bones. These x-rays are useful in helping to detect cavities or other areas of concern that are not noticeable by looking in the mouth. Even if you have no remaining teeth, routine x-rays are helpful to evaluate the remaining bone and soft tissues.   

As a part of routine examination, it is recommended your dentist do a head and neck screening for oral cancers. Oral cancer primarily affects older adults and routine screenings are the best way to help ensure early detection.

Q: What is tooth decay and how can it impact me?

A: We all know tooth decay by its common and dreaded name: cavities. Although we cringe when we hear the word “cavity” while sitting in the dentist’s chair, it is actually one of the most common medical issues facing adults today. Cavities are caused by a variety of factors including bacteria in the mouth, and lifestyle choices, such as drinking sugary beverages and infrequent brushing. Everyone is susceptible to cavities, however there are actions you can take to lessen your chance of one.

The best way to prevent cavities is to maintain a healthy dental hygiene regimen (see below) and visit your dentist regularly. Also try to avoid frequent snacking. After each episode of eating, bacteria in your mouth turn the food into acid that can damage your teeth and put you at greater risk of developing a cavity.

Untreated cavities can have serious, long-lasting effects, such as pain and tooth loss. If you are experiencing a toothache or mouth pain, see a dentist as soon as possible.

Q: What is gum disease and is it treatable?

A: Gum disease is one of the most common oral health issues facing older adults. In fact, 68 percent of adults age 65 and older have some form of gum disease and it is one of the major contributors to tooth loss. Gum disease is an infection of the tissues that surround and support your teeth. Not removing plaque buildup from teeth, including in between the teeth, can play a role in the formation of gum disease. 

Gum disease can be hard to detect, as it is often painless. Some of the hallmark signs of gum disease include:

  • Gums that bleed easily, or are red and swollen
  • Receding gum line
  • Loose or sensitive teeth

Gum disease is manageable. The earlier your dentist can catch it, the better. Early-stage gum disease is generally straightforward to manage through professional cleanings, while late-stage gum disease can be much more complex.

One of the best ways to stay on top of your gum health is to maintain a good dental hygiene routine and ensure you get X-rays taken as recommended by your dentist.

Q: I have noticed that my mouth has gotten drier as I age, what is that all about?

A: You’re not alone here – dry mouth, or xerostomia, affects 30 percent of adults age 65 and older. Dry mouth is often caused by medication you may be taking; take a look at your medications and ask your doctor or pharmacist if xerostomia is one of the side effects. Many people take several medications with dry mouth as a side-effect, which can exacerbate the symptoms.

If you are taking a medication at the direction of your medical doctor for which dry mouth is a side effect, there are some things you can do to help combat the dryness, like drinking water more frequently throughout the day or using a mouth moisturizing agent. Please talk to your dentist if you are experiencing dry mouth, as it sometimes can be caused by an underlying health issue.

Q: What are some considerations for my dental hygiene routine as I age?

A: Keeping up a good dental hygiene routine is one of the most important things you can do to ensure your teeth and mouth stay healthy. Here are some practices you can implement on a daily basis to keep your teeth and mouth healthy and happy:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoridated toothpaste. Soft bristles are the safest and most comfortable choice.
  • Clean between your teeth once a day with floss or another flossing tool. If you have not flossed in a while, you might notice some bleeding the first couple times you start – this is normal and should go away as you floss more regularly.
  • If you wear full or partial dentures, remember to clean them daily.

Q: What if I have not been to the dentist in years, can I just start going?

A: Yes! While the idea of going to the dentist after a hiatus can be intimidating, you will thank yourself down the road. You are also not alone – anxiety over visiting the dentist it is one of the common reasons people stay away from the dentist. Here are a couple of tips to help you feel more comfortable about making that appointment:

  • Most dentists are sensitive to the fact that dentistry can be anxiety producing. Find a dentist you like and feel free to talk to them about your concerns.
  • Check with your friends, family or neighbors. Sometimes the best referrals come from someone who knows you.

Bottom line: Adhering to a consistent dental hygiene routine and seeing the dentist regularly are some of the best things you can do for your oral health. In addition, if you see or feel something out of the ordinary in your mouth, call your dentist to make a dental appointment as soon as possible.