Protecting your patients’ oral health is not only important for them to maintain a stunning smile; it’s also connected to their overall well-being at every age. As people go through different stages, their oral health is vulnerable to various age-related threats. Understanding these risks and taking appropriate preventive measures can help protect patients’ smiles for a lifetime.
Here's what to tell patients about the specific oral health threats they need to be on the lookout for:
Infancy and childhood (0-12 years)
It’s a common misconception that young children’s oral health isn’t important because baby teeth are impermanent. In reality, 42% of children develop cavities from ages 2 to 11. Positive oral health habits begin in infancy and childhood and lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy smiles. During this stage, these threats are of concern:
Baby bottle tooth decay: When a baby's teeth are frequently exposed to sugary liquids such as milk, formula, or juice for extended periods, it can lead to tooth decay. For example, putting an infant to bed with a bottle of anything other than water can cause harmful bacteria to grow in their mouth, which may lead to discolored teeth, decay, or premature tooth loss. This condition can be prevented by cleaning your child’s gums with a soft cloth after each feeding.
Thumb and pacifier sucking: Thumb and pacifier sucking is a natural reflex in infants and young children that provides comfort and a sense of security. However, prolonged thumb and pacifier sucking can negatively impact your child’s teeth alignment and jaw development, which can cause orthodontic and speech issues as they grow up. Help your child break the habit of thumb and pacifier sucking before they reach age 5 to prevent oral health complications.
Poor foundational oral health habits: Not forming good oral hygiene habits, such as regular brushing and flossing, can set the stage for future oral health problems. Protect your child’s smile at an early age by teaching them to brush their teeth twice every day and taking them to the dentist regularly for check-ups and cleanings.
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Adolescence and teenage years (13-19 years)
During the teenage years, hormonal changes and certain habits can pose risks to oral health. This is an especially important stage, as permanent teeth come in and the jaw finishes developing. Fifty-seven percent of adolescents 12 to 19 years develop dental caries in their permanent teeth, primarily due to the following threats:
Hormonal changes: Hormonal fluctuations during puberty can lead to an increased risk of gum inflammation and gingivitis. Young girls are particularly prone to increased blood flow to the gums, which can cause sensitivity and tenderness. Maintaining good oral hygiene practices, including regular brushing and flossing, routine dental checkups, and early detection of oral health issues, becomes crucial during this time to prevent gum problems.
Orthodontic issues: Many teenagers require orthodontic treatment to correct misaligned teeth or bite issues. Misaligned teeth are notorious for impacting teenagers’ self-esteem but can also cause plaque buildup if it’s challenging for them to brush and floss the tight spaces in between crowded teeth. Orthodontic treatment, such as braces or aligners, can effectively correct these issues. Seeking early intervention and working with an orthodontist can help teenagers achieve a healthier, more aligned smile, improve oral hygiene, boost self-confidence, and pave the way for better long-term oral health.
Smoking, vaping, and substance abuse: Adolescents may experiment with these, all of which can have detrimental effects on oral health. These habits can lead to tooth discoloration, gum disease, tooth loss, and even oral cancer. Teenagers can prevent irreversible damage to their oral health by abstaining from smoking, vaping, and substance abuse or seeking support for smoking cessation.
Adulthood (20-59 years)
Adults face an ever-growing set of threats to their oral health. As people age, the enamel on teeth deteriorates, people endure different sources of stress, and they continue to face the risks of poor diet and dental oral hygiene habits. Here are some concerns to be aware of during adulthood:
Teeth grinding (bruxism): The stress and anxiety of adult life can lead to teeth grinding, known as bruxism. This condition involves subconscious grinding or clenching of the teeth, often during sleep. The repeated pressure can cause tooth wear, jaw pain, and headaches, which contribute to enamel damage, sensitivity, and tooth fractures. Consulting with a dentist is the first step in mitigating the harmful effects of bruxism. The dentist will likely recommend a mouthguard and stress management techniques to alleviate the problem.
Sugary or acidic diet can lead to tooth decay and periodontal disease: The threat of tooth decay and periodontal disease increases with age. Nearly half—47.2%, of all adults aged 30 years and older—have some form of gum disease, and 70.1% of adults 65 years and older have periodontal disease. Sugary or acidic foods and beverages may seem harmless in the short term, but after years of consuming these products, many adults have declining oral health. Bacteria in the mouth feed on sugar, leading to painful inflammation that can progress into periodontal disease, gum recession, and tooth loss, and contribute to other overarching health issues. A healthy diet is connected to a healthy life at any stage, but it’s especially important to maintain a balanced diet rich in protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and to limit sugar in adulthood.
Lack of oral health upkeep and regular dental cleanings: Prevention is key to maintaining a healthy smile, but busy schedules and financial constraints cause many adults to neglect their oral health, which increases the risk of dental problems. Studies have shown that people with dental benefits are more likely to visit a dentist and have better overall health, so securing reliable, affordable dental insurance can make a positive difference in your long-term oral health. Prioritize brushing twice a day, flossing daily, and visiting your dentist for regular check-ups and cleanings.
Seniors (60+ years)
The physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments we experience with aging can present barriers to home oral health care, transportation to the dentist, and patient communication. Seniors must be mindful of these new threats to their oral health:
Physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments: Arthritis or other physical limitations can make brushing and flossing difficult for seniors. Sensory and cognitive changes can also affect oral hygiene routines. To maintain their oral health, seniors must seek assistance if needed, and consider using adaptive devices such as electric toothbrushes to aid in keeping up with at-home care.
Dry mouth (xerostomia): Many medications and medical conditions can cause dry mouth, which makes seniors more susceptible to tooth decay, as saliva helps neutralize acids and wash away food particles. Chronic dry mouth can lead to oral infections, difficulty in eating and speaking, bad breath, discomfort, impaired taste, and increased dental plaque and tartar buildup. Ways to prevent oral harm from xerostomia include staying hydrated, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and using doctor-recommended treatments.
Oral cancer: Seniors face an increased risk of oral cancer due to age-related changes in the oral tissues and long-term exposure to risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol. Regular dental check-ups are crucial for seniors, as dentists can perform oral cancer screenings and detect any suspicious lesions or abnormalities at an early stage.
Oral health is a lifelong commitment, and it’s essential to be aware of the threats that can affect people at every age. By understanding and addressing age-specific risks, maintaining good oral hygiene, and seeking professional dental care, you can empower patients to safeguard their oral health and enjoy a lifetime of healthy smiles. Prevention is key, so encourage them to make healthy dental habits a part of their daily routine.