Study Reinforces the Importance of Dental Care for Seniors

Posted on 11/19/2013 by Gregory A. Williams
Older couple smiling on a park benchOver a hundred years ago, the art of dentistry involved little more than removing painful teeth that had become rotted with decay. Tigard OR Dentist Greg Williams and his team want to let you know that fortunately for patients today, dentistry has come a long way since the days when developing a toothache meant months of agony until you could find a dentist – or barber – to pull the tooth. (Perhaps one of the reasons Doc Holliday was so fast pulling out his pistol was due the practice he received pulling out his patients' teeth.)

The practice of preventative dentistry didn't become widespread in the U.S. until after World War II. With over 16 million Americans serving in the war, health officials were able to collect a historic amount of data on the nation's oral health. This data provided researchers with the information needed to make remarkable breakthroughs in techniques that help dentists maintain and repair their patients' oral health.

Due to the advancements made in dentistry, senior patients are now able to keep their teeth longer than ever before. This makes practicing ongoing oral healthcare vital to a senior's health, reports a new study. Unfortunately, many seniors fail to maintain their oral hygiene, which can result in the development of oral health problems.

While researchers noted efforts by health care officials in recent years to improve oral health care for seniors and the frail, ample evidence suggests that the oral health of most seniors is poor, especially in cases of seniors living in nursing homes.

Researchers from the Netherlands' Geriatric Oral Research Group reviewed data on senior dental habits and what consequences they faced due to poor oral health, along with the impact it has on their overall health. They discovered that while improvements in dental care allow senior patients to keep their permanent teeth much longer than in past decades, many seniors don't practice sufficient oral hygiene habits that enable them to maintain their permanent teeth.

Compounding the issue is the fact that many seniors need to take medications that cause dry mouth as a symptom. Saliva acts as the body's natural defense against harmful substances in the mouth that contribute to tooth decay. Seniors who suffer from decreased saliva flow have a higher risk of developing decay, especially when they also fail to brush and floss regularly.

Researchers found the main consequence for seniors who practice poor oral hygiene include conditions such as cavities, gum disease, and problems with dentures and dental implants. A number of recent studies have also shown that individuals with poor oral health – regardless of age – have an increased risk of developing a number of chronic diseases, including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Many senior and frail individuals experience trouble when trying to perform oral hygiene habits such as brushing and cannot adequately clean their mouths. This leaves many seniors relying on help from caregivers, which can become especially problematic for those living in long-term care facilities where a patient's oral hygiene is handled by nurses and nurse assistants who may not understand its importance, reported researchers.

Researchers concluded that if improvements in senior oral healthcare don't happen soon, oral disease and other related health issues will become a major problem for seniors and the frail on par with cognitive problems, incontinence, impaired mobility, and accidental falling.

While these findings have been known for years among oral health experts, researchers hope a wider understanding of the obstacles seniors face with their oral hygiene will become more widespread. Adult children, grandchildren, and caregivers must appreciate the importance of a senior's oral health and assist them with brushing and flossing daily, if needed.

The American Dental Association has already begun teaming with local state organizations to establish programs that ensure nursing home patients have access to dentists and dental care, while also stressing the importance of daily oral healthcare to caregivers working in these homes.

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