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Why Oral Health Is So Important for Older People

Leigh Ann Hubbard June 4, 2018
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If your eyes are the window to your soul, is your mouth the window to your health?

The state of a person’s teeth may reveal a lot about the state of their body. Over the past few years, studies have repeatedly found links between oral health and diseases like heart disease and stroke.

Though there’s no consensus yet on whether bad oral health actually causes such diseases. But leading longevity organizations have started spotlighting those pearly whites. National conferences have featured oral health seminars. And The Gerontological Society of America launched an initiative around the issue.

Here are a few in-depth articles that break down what the research is finding—particularly as it relates to older people.

Headlines & Insights: Curated excerpts from thought-provoking articles

What Older Adults Need to Know About Oral Health
University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry

Changes that begin as we become older can have all sorts of effects on oral and overall health. Gum disease, sensitive teeth, diabetes, nutrition challenges, along with dry mouth are just some of the conditions that may put older [adults’] health at risk. …

For instance, these can affect what you choose to eat and how much you enjoy certain foods. If you have problems chewing and swallowing, you may begin to avoid certain foods and change the times or places you eat—and some of these changes may negatively impact quality of life.

Is Healthy Aging Your Goal? A Healthy Mouth Should Be, Too
National Council on Aging / Karen Tracy

In the aging process, tooth loss, gum disease, and other dental problems have historically been considered inevitable outcomes. But like many aspects of what people might consider “normal” aging, both tooth loss and poor oral health can be prevented. Prevention and patient education strategies—both for individuals and communities—are critical in oral health for older adults.

Older adults with poor oral health are at increased risk for aspiration pneumonia, poorly controlled diabetes, endocarditis, and inadequate nutrition, among other systemic health problems. Many medications commonly used by older adults also cause dry mouth, leading to tooth decay as well as impaired swallowing, speech, and taste.

Key Messages From A State of Decay, Vol. IV [full report]
Oral Health America

Socioeconomic factors, such as income, race, gender, and education determine older adults’ oral health outcomes. The rate of severe tooth loss and recent dental visit data, analyzed individually on a national basis, showed a consistent, linear association with household income …. As income and education levels rose, so did the probability of good oral health. Further, African American and Hispanic seniors are two times more likely to have untreated decay than their Caucasian counterparts.

Oral Health: Essential Element of Healthful Aging
Today’s Geriatric Medicine / Stephen Shuman, DDS, MS

… Medicare does not currently cover most preventive or therapeutic dental services. …

Until there is more broadly available dental coverage for older adults, other potential resources for dental care for those without insurance or with limited income include federally qualified health centers or other community clinics that may offer dental services on a sliding-fee basis, as well as clinics at local dental or dental hygiene schools. State and county dental societies usually maintain lists of low-cost dental clinics and those accepting Medicaid, as well as any free clinics that may be available in the community.

Gum Disease and the Connection to Heart Disease
Harvard Health Publishing / Robert H. Shmerling, MD

This study [suggests] that the observed connection between poor oral health does not directly cause cardiovascular disease. But if that’s true, how do we explain other studies that found a connection even after accounting for smoking and other cardiovascular risk factors?

It’s rare that a single study definitively answers a question that has been pondered by researchers for decades. So, we’ll probably need additional studies to sort this out.

Leigh Ann Hubbard

Leigh Ann Hubbard is a freelance journalist specializing in aging, health, the American South and Alaska.

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