Today’s older adults keep their natural teeth much longer than older adults of the past. There is less of a need for false teeth: complete or partial dentures. Yet, with the natural teeth that remain, there is a risk for tooth decay (also called cavities) and gum disease. These are the two most common mouth diseases throughout a person’s life. If these conditions are not treated, the teeth become painful, loose, or broken. This causes chewing problems, changes in appearance, and eventually affects older adults’ self-esteem.
Dental care is not a priority among older adults since Medicare and Medicaid do not cover these services. Dentists do not always accept Medicaid because of the lack of compensation. As a result of limited dental services, older adults often go to the hospital for their dental care. This ends up costing a lot more than preventative dental services.
Older adults remain at risk for decay that is untreated in approximately 30% of adults with teeth. They are at increased risk for root decay because their gums continue to recede, which exposes root surfaces. Some of their medications can cause dryness in the mouth, which allows decay to continue. About 50% of people over 75 years old have root cavities affecting at least one tooth in their mouth. About 25% of older adults have loss of bones around the teeth because of advanced gum disease. Without early prevention, these conditions become difficult to treat.
Compared with younger people, today’s older adults may have experienced higher rates of dental cavities and tooth removal as young adults, making more challenges for replacement of teeth today. Seniors who self-report poorer overall health are at a greater risk for limited dexterity, mobility, and tolerance of stress. These factors can prevent seniors from taking care of their own oral hygiene, visiting a dental office, or tolerating treatment. They will probably need a caregiver and strategies to maintain daily self-care, get regular oral exams, and receive prevention services.
Saroj Gupta, DDS