Common Oral Health Issues Among the Elderly

Tofu, porridge, boiled fish and green bean soup – Ah Ma doesn’t just prefer to eat soft foods like these because of how they taste or how healthy they are. It is actually common for seniors to find it painful to bite on hard, chewy or crunchy food, and soft food is a respite from that pain.

The truth of the matter is; age naturally deteriorates the condition of our teeth as well as other aspects of our health. To enjoy the tastes and textures of food that we love, we need to be able to bite with our teeth. And that means keeping them healthy and intact for as long as possible.

Here are common oral health issues that seniors should look out for and how to address them quickly.

Dental Decay

We all know about dental decay, but did you know that seniors are more prone to it?

Think of all the twists we make with our wrists just to get to those back teeth when we brush in the morning. As seniors lose dexterity with their hands, it gets harder to clean their own teeth effectively. For some seniors, medication or side effects of treatment reduce saliva production, which is much needed to wash away debris. And in tight spots like those teeth in the back, dental plaque and bacteria build up where food debris is left behind.

Left for a while, the bacteria can multiply and excrete acids that attack the tooth structure. This results in cavities, and can become painful.

Peridontal Disease

Image: Wikimedia

Periodontal Disease

Does your loved one suffer from red, swollen, receding or bleeding gums? Chances are they may have periodontal disease, which should be looked at by a dentist to be treated, or prevented from getting worse.

When bacteria and dental plaque build up in the mouth, the supporting gums and bone can get infected. This can be made worse by other health conditions like diabetes, where our immune system has difficulty fighting an infection. If neglected, it may even progress to severe bone and teeth loss. Quite a scary thought for something so preventable.

Tooth Loss

We treasure the adult teeth we have after losing our milk teeth because they can never be replaced naturally – unless you actually lose a tooth after a serious case of decay, gum disease or physical injury. For seniors who are more prone to osteoporosis, their jaw bone may also be weaker, and teeth can easily become loose or knocked out of its socket. An empty socket sometimes harbours left-over food particles, or turns into a painful dry socket if it heals poorly.

Ill-Fitting Dentures

Have you noticed your uncle refusing to use his dentures for eating, or your grandmother’s dentures falling out every time she coughs? This is actually not normal because good dentures are supposed to fit properly and comfortably in your mouth.

Unfortunately, some dentures are ill-fitting, and rub against the soft tissues of the mouth. The friction can cause painful ulcers that sometimes get infected, and affect the person’s ability to eat and even sleep.

Despite the discomfort, some seniors are unable or unwilling to get their dentures fixed, especially over time as their facial structure and muscles change. Why not make the investment in dentures worthwhile by seeing a dentist for a good re-fitting?

Ill-Fitting Dentures

Tooth Wear

Did you know that tooth enamel is harder than steel, yet a lot more brittle? Scratching your tooth on metal cutlery may not be possible but chipping it on a beer bottle is. On top of that, years of chewing, grinding on teeth and eating acidic food causes wear and tear to tooth enamel.

For seniors with gastric issues such as gastric reflux, stomach acid enters the mouth from time to time and erodes tooth enamel even further. This may cause increased tooth sensitivity to hot and cold foods, or even pain.

Cracked or Broken Teeth

Dentists often see cases of cracked or broken teeth in seniors who come in after a fall. The sudden high impact or pressure shatters an already weakened tooth structure, which becomes painful, especially if the crack has extended to the pulp.

In such cases, the tooth can be saved by holding it together and protecting it with a root canal and a crown. In cases where the crack has extended below the gum line, the tooth may need to be extracted.

Caring for your senior’s oral health: what to look out for?

So what can we do to help Ah Ma keep her teeth for as long as possible? Caregivers can play an active role in looking out for certain tell-tale signs of oral health issues, especially for seniors who have difficulty communicating, such as those with stroke or dementia. Some of these include;

  • Using only one side of their mouth to chew
  • Suddenly refusing food that they are used to eating
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Bright red and bleeding gums when brushing teeth
  • Exceptionally long teeth
  • Broken teeth
  • Shaky or lost teeth
  • White spots or ulcers that don’t go away may be indication of oral cancer, with a higher risk for individuals who smoke or drink.

Caregivers can help seniors to stay in touch with their own oral health. For those who are unable to move about easily, mobility such as those with Parkinsons, stroke or arthritis, caregivers can continue to make dental health within reach.

  • Bring them to regular dental check ups twice a year
  • Introduce teeth cleaning tools that are easier to use, such as floss picks and flexible soft bristle brushes
  • Communicate to your senior the importance of oral health as part of their overall health and wellbeing

When visiting the dentist, bring a list of medication that your loved one is prescribed. Certain medications used to treat underlying health issues may affect the healing process and treatment plan of dental procedures. The attending dentist will be able to refer to this list of medication and prescribe the best suited plan of action for your loved one. Some common medications for seniors include:

  • Blood thinners
  • Osteoporosis medication
  • Painkillers
  • Diabetes medication and other common illnesses
Common Oral Health Issues Among the Elderly

Maintaining good oral hygiene and remembering to visit the dentist are important to keeping that smile on your loved one’s face. By including oral health as part of your plan to maintain quality of life, you and your loved ones can focus on enjoying the good that their golden years have to offer.

NTUC Health Denticare

You may visit our NTUC Health Denticare website to find out more information on our services. Services such as denture fitting, dental crowns, root canal treatment and more are available at our Denticare clinics islandwide.

You may also call NTUC Health Denticare at T. +65 6336 6222