Did you know that dental care is the most common unmet health need in America? The U.S. Surgeon General reported in 2000: “You are not healthy without good oral health.” Tooth decay and gum disease are common problems we face throughout our lives. It can be even more of an issue as we get older. Adults who grew up without fluoride in their drinking water are more likely to get cavities because they didn’t have the benefits of fluoride as a child. Untreated cavities can lead to toothaches, broken teeth, and infections.
Gum disease is also very important. Gum disease can make teeth become loose and even cause us to lose our teeth. If you lose enough teeth it becomes harder to eat the foods you like. It may also be harder to eat healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. If you have dentures that do not fit properly, you may find it more difficult to eat healthy food. A diet containing high amounts of sugar and starch contributes not only to obesity, but also tooth decay.
If teeth are lost, it can affect how we talk, smile and feel about ourselves. Every day, there are more adults aging, and tooth loss is becoming more of an important public health issue. Losing all your teeth before age 65 is associated with a 50% increased risk of death from all causes.
Gum disease can get worse as you get older. It can affect your general health. New evidence links gum disease with chronic illnesses. Some common to older adults are obesity, diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
Saliva (spit) is also very important. Saliva rinses the teeth and reduces the acids made by bacteria in our mouths. If your mouth is dry, you are more likely to get cavities and gum disease. Dry mouth is a common side effect of many prescribed medications. These include steroids, antihistamines, antidepressants, and blood pressure medications.
Bedridden and hospitalized patients are at risk for pneumonia caused by breathing in bacteria from the mouth into their lungs. Keeping your teeth and mouth cleaner is a way to lessen this risk.
Oral (mouth) cancers are most common in the elderly and generally have a poor recovery prognosis. If you smoke or use tobacco you have an increased risk of getting lung cancer, mouth cancer, and gum disease. Using alcohol can also increase your risk. Alcohol abuse can lead to liver disease and oral cancer.
So, what can you do to improve the health of your mouth and body?
- Eat fresh fruits and vegetables
- Don’t use tobacco
- Limit alcohol
- Ask your dentist and your physician to talk with each other whenever they recommend treatment or prescribe medication for you.
- Bring a list of all medicines (including over the counter ones) you are taking with you to every appointment
Dick Gregory, DDS
Director Samaritan House Dental Clinics
UCSF Multidisciplinary Geriatric Fellow 2012-14
Associate Faculty, Department of Dental Practice, University of the Pacific A. Dugoni School
Mills Peninsula Health Services Senior Focus Committee, Chair
San Mateo County Oral Health Access Coalition, Chair