Exploring Retirement: Jeanette Lewis

Jeannette Lewis, contributorJeanette is one of the regular writers for Exploring Retirement. Each month she contributes an inspirational article on living life to the full in retirement.

Dental Health and Growing Old

Most people understand the importance of regular exercise and a nutritious diet as key components of maintaining excellent physical health as we grow older. But, how often is good dental health considered as another essential component of health? The population is aging quickly in most of the world. The number of older persons worldwide is expected to increase to 1.4 billion people by 2030. Yet dental health is seldom emphasized as an essential element of successful aging.

In our time, most older people retain their natural teeth as compared to previous generations when losing one's teeth was considered an inevitable consequence of aging. A few years ago I was shocked when a tooth broke as I accidentally bit an olive pit. Until then, I expected my teeth to last a lifetime. Like most people, I take pride in a capacity to show healthy teeth in a broad smile; therefore, I was faced with many inconvenient dental appointments and the expense of an implant. It was my first lesson in the continued importance of dental health in the later stages of life.

Too often older people are tempted to skip regular dental examinations and cleaning as these procedures are not covered by medical plans in most jurisdictions. In Canada, dental health care is not part of universal health care. Visits to a dentist, periodontist, and oral hygienist are a direct expense unless one has the luxury of supplementary health insurance. My health insurance covered most of the costs of the implant but trips to the dentist and periodontist devoured considerable time, energy and money for insurance top-ups and parking.

Teeth and Aging

As we grow older, our teeth change. Daily chewing wears down normal teeth. Enamel thins and discolouration may occur as a result of consuming certain foods and drinks such as black coffee and black tea.

Dry mouth is a common side effect of many prescription medications including chemotherapy medications and as a side-effect of certain diseases. Aging often results in less saliva production which contributes to dry mouth.

Oral self care can be a challenge especially for people suffering from dementia who may not be able to care for teeth and gums. Oral care is one of the dreadful responsibilities for caregivers especially those working with difficult people in long term care. Reluctance to tackle tooth- brushing, much less flossing, when someone refuses to cooperate is understandable as there are often so many other problems and issues. Severe arthritis may also affect ability to manipulate a tooth brush or dental floss.

Gum or periodontal disease is very common in older adults. Gum disease is caused by accumulation of plaque that forms around a tooth. As plaque accumulates gums pull away from teeth and deep spaces or pockets form between or around teeth. Food particles and more plaque collects in the spaces resulting in bleeding, tender and swollen gums. As well as causing bad breath and a bad taste in the mouth, gum disease can destroy the boney tissue supporting a tooth resulting in tooth loss. More worrisome is the link between inflammation of the gums and potential for heart disease or stroke.

Excessive and over-vigorous brushing may also cause loss of bone and muscle mass of gums. Gums recede causing exposure of root surfaces and leaving these areas at risk for cavities. Tooth decay can also occur around old fillings. Because nerves in teeth get smaller with age, there is less sensitivity to tooth pain which may result in unsuspected tooth decay.

Minimizing Impact

There's no doubt that everyone's teeth will suffer some effects of aging but each of us can minimize the impact and manage this important aspect of health. Readers might consider the following tips:

  1. Practise good oral hygiene - brushing twice daily, at minimum, is recommended by dental associations. Most drug stores carry a broad assortment of products to aid in oral hygiene including electronic toothbrushes, ergonomically designed manual tooth brushes, flavoured dental floss, floss holders, and interdental cleaners.
  2. Schedule regular and frequent dental cleanings and examinations. Don't wait for a painful toothache! The best way to control gum disease is with cleaning, or removal of excess plaque by a hygienist. Cleaning should happen at the frequency recommended by your hygienist - usually every 3 to 6 months. A dentist should also examine the mouth regularly as part of detection of oral cancer.
  3. If you wear dentures or partial dentures, clean them properly. Dentures should be removed for a period of time each day or night to allow gums to rest.
  4. Don't smoke. Smoking may lead to increase risk of gum disease.
  5. Drink more water to ensure that the mouth has constant lubrication.
  6. Eat a healthy diet with emphasis on foods that have high calcium content.

Facetiously, I might recommend avoiding olives! However, I've put that unfortunate incident into my personal history book. I confess that I continue to enjoy all types of olives but am careful when pits may be involved!

  1. www.seniorszen.com/blog/2017/09/26/celebrate-seniors-october-1
  2. https://www.prevention.com/health/7-things-you-need-to-know-about-your-teeth-as-you-age