Keeping a Healthy Mouth:
for Older Adults
we get older, we all notice the effects of aging —
wrinkles, greying hair and a variety of aches and pains
that we didn't have before. Our mouth also is affected by
advancing age, undergoing both subtle and sometimes
pronounced changes. Understanding these changes, and what
can be done about them, is important to maintaining good
Your Changing Mouth
Every Tooth Counts
Preventing Dental Problems
The Importance of Dental Visits
a Grip on Your Toothbrush and Floss
Your Changing Mouth
Why do my teeth seem darker?
One of the changes you may notice as you grow older is
that it's harder to keep your teeth clean and white. This
is because the sticky, colorless layer of bacteria, called
plaque, can build up faster and in greater amounts as we
age. Changes in dentin, the bone-like tissue that is under
your enamel, may also cause your teeth to appear slightly
Why does my mouth feel dry?
Reduced saliva flow that results in a dry mouth is a
common problem among older adults. It is caused by certain
medical disorders and is often a side effect of
medications such as antihistamines, decongestants, pain
killers and diuretics. Some of the common problems
associated with dry mouth include a constant sore throat,
burning sensation, problems speaking, difficulty
swallowing, hoarseness or dry nasal passages. Left
untreated, dry mouth can damage your teeth. Without
adequate saliva to lubricate your mouth, wash away food,
and neutralize the acids produced by plaque, extensive
cavities can form.
Your dentist can recommend various methods to restore
moisture. Sugar-free candy or gum stimulates saliva flow,
and moisture can be replaced by using artificial saliva
and oral rinses.
Why am I losing my sense of taste?
You may find that you are losing your appetite due to a
change in your sense of taste. Several factors can cause
this change. Besides an age-related decrease in the sense
of taste and smell, certain diseases, medications and
dentures can contribute to a decrease in your sense of
Aren't cavities just kid's stuff?
No. Changes that occur with aging make cavities an
adult problem, too. Recession of the gums away from the
teeth, combined with an increased incidence of gum
disease, can expose tooth roots to plaque. Tooth roots are
covered with cementum, a softer tissue than enamel. They
are susceptible to decay and are more sensitive to touch
and to hot and cold. The majority of people over age 50
have tooth-root decay.
Decay around the edges, or margins, of fillings is also
common to older adults. Because many older adults lacked
benefits of fluoride and modern preventive dental care
when they were growing up, they often have a number of
dental fillings. Over the years, these fillings may weaken
and tend to fracture and leak around the edges. Bacteria
accumulate in these tiny crevices causing acid to build up
which leads to decay.
Should I be concerned about gum disease?
Yes. A majority of adults are affected by some form of
gum (periodontal) disease. It is a major cause of tooth
loss among adults. The culprit that causes such
destruction is bacteria which thrive on the sugars and
starches in foods you eat. Bacteria create toxins which
irritate the gums. Slowly, and often without pain, the
gums detach from the teeth, and if the condition is not
treated, the supporting bone may dissolve, causing the
teeth to become loose. This condition may require surgical
treatment of the gums or removal of teeth.
Ill-fitting dentures or bridges, poor diets, poor oral
hygiene, other medical diseases, and even some medications
can increase the severity of gum disease. Signs to look
for include gums that are red, swollen, tender, bleed
easily or have pus between the gums and teeth. Other signs
include changes in the fit of partial dentures, any change
in the way your teeth fit together, gums that have receded
from the teeth or natural teeth which are loose.
Every Tooth Counts
Every tooth in your mouth plays an important role in
speaking, chewing and in maintaining proper alignment of
other teeth. Tooth loss isn't an inevitable part of aging,
but if you do lose teeth, they must be replaced for your
mouth to function properly. A number of options can be
used to replace missing teeth.
How can I fill the gap?
A bridge — a device used to replace missing teeth —
attaches artificial teeth to adjacent natural teeth,
called abutment teeth. Bridges can be applied either
permanently (fixed bridges), or they can be removable.
Fixed bridges are applied by either placing crowns on
the abutment teeth — to provide support for artificial
teeth — or by bonding the artificial teeth directly to
the abutment teeth. Removable bridges are attached to the
teeth by either metal clasps or by precision attachments.
What about dentures?
When most or all of your teeth have been lost, dentures
can restore your eating and speaking ability, as well as
improve your appearance. Today's dentures are much more
effective and cosmetically appealing than they were in the
past. A fitting for dentures can take place immediately
after your natural teeth are removed or after the
extraction sites have healed. Full dentures replace all of
the natural teeth, and partial dentures replace only some
of the natural teeth.
Are there other options?
An increasingly successful option to dentures and
bridges is dental implants. Instead of attaching
artificial teeth to existing teeth, as bridges do,
implants attach directly to the jaw bone or under the gum
tissues. Because implants attach so securely, they look
and feel natural, and offer better chewing ability.
Candidates for implants must be in good health and have
enough bone with which to secure the implant. Your dentist
can let you know if implants are an option for you.
Preventing Dental Problems
Every time you eat food containing sugars and starches,
the bacteria in plaque produce acids which attack your
tooth enamel for 20 minutes or more. After repeated acid
attacks, the tooth enamel begins to break down and a
cavity forms. By limiting the number of times you snack
and choosing nutritious foods from the five main food
groups (vegetables; fruits; dairy; breads/cereals/grains;
meat/poultry/fish), you can help save your teeth from
decay. A balanced diet, plus brushing and cleaning between
your teeth, can keep your mouth healthier.
Choosing Oral Care Products
Even savvy shoppers can be baffled by the seemingly
endless variety of dental care products. Choose products
that recommended by your dentist. toothpaste, manual and electric toothbrushes, floss and
other interdental cleaning aids, mouthrinses and oral
Thorough brushing twice a day, and cleaning between the
teeth daily with floss or other interdental cleaners,
remove plaque. Keep these tips in mind when brushing your
teeth. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush. Place the brush at
a 45-degree angle to the teeth and use a gentle
tooth-wide, back-and-forth motion. Remember to clean the
inside teeth surfaces where plaque deposits are heavy, and
clean the back teeth and tongue. Replace your brush when
the bristles become frayed or worn — about every three
to four months.
Cleaning between teeth
Floss and other interdental cleaners remove plaque from
between the teeth and under the gumline, areas where the
toothbrush can't reach. If you haven't been in the habit,
it's never too late to start.
When flossing, keep in mind these tips. Gently ease the
floss between the teeth and gumline, never snap it. Form a
"c" against the sides of both teeth and gently
rub the floss up and down the tooth, moving it from under
the gumline to the top of the tooth. Establish a regular
pattern of flossing and remember to floss the backside of
the last teeth. It's especially important for bridge
wearers to floss around the abutment teeth. These teeth
must remain healthy if the bridge is to function properly.
If you use interdental cleaners, ask your dentist how
to use them properly, to avoid injuring your gums.
The importance of fluoride
Recent studies show that fluoride is just as effective
in preventing cavities in adults as it is in children. You
should use a fluoride toothpaste . Fluoride mouthrinses provide
additional benefits and can reduce decay even more than
brushing and flossing alone. The American Dental
Association recommends that adults use a fluoride
Denture care and maintenance
Cleaning your dentures daily helps remove stains and
plaque that build up and irritate your gums. First, rinse
your dentures. Then, use a soft-bristled denture brush and
a denture-cleaning agent. Brush the denture thoroughly,
but avoid damaging the plastic parts or metal clasps.
Only your dentist is qualified to diagnose your oral
health condition and fit and adjust your dentures.
Do-it-yourself kits and use of dental adhesives, without a
dentist's advice, can result in increased irritation, bone
loss and even infections. Although your dentures were made
to fit precisely, they can become loose due to naturally
occurring changes in your gums and bones. Your dentist
should periodically check your dentures for proper fit.
The Importance of Dental Visits
Regular dental visits are important, regardless of
whether or not you have your natural teeth. Checking the
condition of your teeth is just one of the many functions
your dentist performs.
Why isn't brushing enough?
Although daily brushing and flossing help remove plaque
and early tartar formation, once tartar has hardened, it
can only be removed by a dental professional. Some people
form tartar faster than others and may need to have their
teeth cleaned more often.
What else happens in a dental examination?
Besides finding and treating existing dental problems,
your dentist also looks for signs of other health problems
such as oral cancer. Many oral cancers are treatable if
they are discovered early. So, alert your dentist to any
sores, swellings or discolorations that you find on your
tongue, lips, cheek, throat, jaw bone or salivary glands.
Because the majority of oral cancers occur in people over
the age of 45, regular dental checkups are important. In
addition, other medical conditions often have symptoms
that first appear in the mouth.
Are there other ways I can improve my smile?
Looking good continues to be important as we grow
older, and a number of new cosmetic dental procedures can
help you improve your smile. These new techniques are not
just for younger people — many are options that can
Bleaching whitens stained teeth. Bonding is a technique
that "paints" tooth-colored materials onto the
tooth to cover stains, to rebuild chipped or cracked teeth
and to close gaps. Veneers are tooth-colored materials
that fit over the teeth — much like a false fingernail.
Ask your dentist what procedures would be right for you.
Getting a Grip on Your Toothbrush
If you have dexterity problems or a physical
disability, you may find it difficult to hold onto your
toothbrush or dental floss. This can be solved by using a
few simple "home remedies" or devices listed
- Use a wide elastic band to attach the brush to your
- Enlarge the brush handle with a sponge, rubber ball
or bicycle handle grip. Also try winding an elastic
bandage or adhesive tape around the handle.
- Lengthen the handle with a piece of wood or plastic
such as a ruler, popsicle stick or tongue depressor.
- Tie floss into a loop for easier handling.
- Use an electric toothbrush or commercial floss
Things to Remember...
Although our mouth goes through many changes as we age,
the power to avoid dental decay and gum disease is within
Contrary to popular belief, cavities are a common
problem among older adults.
Tooth loss isn't inevitable, but if you do lose some or
all of your teeth, a number of options can be used to
Be sure to tell your dentist about any illnesses you
have or any medications that you are taking — including
those you purchase over the counter.