We often think of oral health habits as a topic for young children. Parents, older siblings, and the dentist all teach kids the importance of brushing their teeth twice a day, flossing, and avoiding too many candies and sugary drinks.
But what about as we get older? Should our oral health routines change? While the tried-and-true advice of brushing, flossing, and avoiding sugar still apply, there are a few specialized routines applicable to older people that need to be considered.
1. Have a dedicated brushing routine
While brushing our teeth at least twice per day is essential, so is how we brush. As we age, changes occur in our teeth and gums, which may require changing our brushing techniques. Be sure to talk to your dentist about this at every routine cleaning.
2. Flossing: More important than ever
Brushing doesn’t reach all of a tooth’s surface, and that’s why daily flossing is so important. When we’re younger, traditional floss may be fine, but as we age, changes in small motor dexterity, arthritis in the fingers, or reduction in vision can make flossing more challenging. Fortunately, there are many alternatives to traditional string floss—for example, a water flosser works very well by rinsing out food, bacteria, and plaque from between the teeth and reducing inflammation in the gums.
3. Stick with fluoride toothpaste
Fluoride is a necessary ingredient for cavity prevention. As we age, we may develop sensitivity in the teeth or receding gums. If this happens, ask your dentist for toothpaste with a low relative dentin abrasion (RDA) value. Generally, most toothpastes that have a label for “sensitive teeth” will have a low RDA. If a toothpaste has a label that it’s ideal for tartar control or removing stains, it will most likely have a higher dentin abrasion value.
4. Use a dentist-recommended mouth rinse
During your routine cleanings, talk to your dentist about finding a mouth rinse that is ideal for your dental and medical needs. While many types of mouthwash are designed to freshen breath, others can provide antimicrobial support to help you maintain healthy gums and prevent cavities. There are also specialized mouth sprays that can help if you routinely experience dry mouth due to medication.
5. Make good food choices
Whether you’re 5, 50, or 105, your dietary decisions impact your oral health. Following a diet low in processed and refined sugars and rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can benefit your dental health and overall wellness. Limiting your consumption of sugary candies and drinks is a good decision regardless of your age.
6. Maintain scheduled dental checkups
Practicing good oral hygiene at home is a must for maintaining optimal oral health, but don’t cut back on regular dental visits. During your routine checkups, the dental team will carefully inspect your mouth for any changes in color and texture and analyze the shape of your teeth and gums to detect any early-stage problems. While maintaining a schedule of biannual dental cleanings is ideal, your dentist may recommend more frequent checkups if oral health concerns begin to develop.
7. Take great care when cleaning dentures
As we age, there is a greater likelihood that we’ll need dentures to replace damaged teeth or teeth that have been removed because of significant gum disease. Dentures can come in complete sets (replacing all top or bottom teeth) or partials. A partial denture is typically used to fill in an area with one or more missing teeth.
If you’ve recently been fitted with dentures, you must keep them clean and free from food. You also need to routinely inspect your gums to ensure the skin appears smooth, healthy, and free from abrasions. Dentures should be brushed daily with a special denture-care cleaning product and then soaked overnight in a denture cleansing liquid. Removing dentures while you sleep will help keep the gums healthy and prevent swelling.
8. Address xerostomia (dry mouth)
Many medications taken by older individuals can cause dry mouth. Whether it’s for high blood pressure, bladder control, or depression, many well-known prescriptions can cause this side effect. A dry mouth is precisely as it sounds: it’s when you cannot produce enough saliva to maintain a sufficiently wet mouth. Persistent dry mouth increases the risk of tooth decay, cavities, and fungal infections inside the mouth, so it’s a condition that needs to be taken seriously. If you are experiencing dry mouth, speak with your dentist. There are many products that may be helpful in keeping your mouth healthy and limiting tooth decay.
9. Check for oral cancer
Oral cancer typically starts in the mouth, throat, or tongue and is more likely to develop after the age of 40. Surprisingly, in its early stages, oral cancer often has little or no pain, so it’s easy to have the disease go undetected. However, your dental team will look for the warning signs of oral cancer at every dental checkup, even if you’re feeling no discomfort.
If you’re concerned about developing oral cancer, there are a few preventive suggestions to follow:
- Avoid all cigarettes, chewing tobacco, pipes, cigars, or e-cigarettes
- Drink alcohol only in moderation
- Use lip balm with sunscreen
Great oral hygiene requires a lifelong dedication
Scientific and medical studies have consistently shown that our oral health is linked to our overall health. Maintaining good oral health as you age may help reduce the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic, life-threatening conditions. Having regular appointments with a well-trained, compassionate dental team can certainly help, but it does not take the place of following good oral hygiene habits at home.
In 2013, the Journal for the American Geriatrics Society published the study Poor Oral Health and Quality of Life in Older U.S. Adults, which showed that individuals had 1.34 times greater odds of worse general health if they had not had dental care in the preceding 12 months versus those who had received dental care. Clearly, maintaining frequent dental checkups, cleanings, and screenings, is vital for staying healthy as we get older.