Not counting wisdom teeth, the adult mouth is designed to house 32 natural teeth. Yet, for American adults over the age of 65, the average number of teeth is less than 19. In this age group, there is little difference in this statistic between males and females. Over 27 percent who are over the age of 65 are missing all of their natural teeth. (https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/DataStatistics/FindDataByTopic/ToothLoss/ToothLossSeniors65andOlder.htm)
Tooth loss, at any age, poses particular challenges that affect overall health – both physical and psychological. In addition to having a compromised ability to eat a healthy diet, the ability to chew comfortably is an issue for many denture or partial denture wearers.
When food is not chewed properly, the digestive process is less efficient. It should be no surprise that denture wearers take more medications and have more gastrointestinal problems than adults with their natural teeth.
In a nation of cutting-edge medical facilities and health care professionals, why are so many of our seniors missing such a high number of natural teeth?
The leading cause of adults tooth loss in the U.S. is periodontal (gum) disease. The aging process poses several challenges to oral health, with each opening the door wider to the development of gum disease.
A natural part of the aging process is dry mouth as saliva flow becomes less efficient. Having low saliva flow that is designed to continually rinse bacteria and food particles from the mouth provides an ideal environment for bacteria reproduction. As more and more bacteria exist and reproduce in the mouth, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep their levels under control.
In addition to age-related dry mouth, oral dryness is a side effect of a number of medications. In an article published by the Huffington Post, “The Elderly Are Taking Too Many Pills,” the American Association of Consultant Pharmacists report that adults ages 65 to 69 take an average of 15 prescriptions a year with ages 80 to 84 averaging 18. (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/ann-brenoff/elderly-taking-too-many-pills_b_7079060.html)
Gum disease occurs when oral bacteria in the mouth accumulate. Initially, they form a sticky film that coats teeth and gums, known as plaque. When plaque is not removed thoroughly and regularly, it can harden on tooth surfaces. This cement-hard mass of bacteria is referred to as tartar, or calculus.
Tartar cannot be brushed or flossed away. It can only be removed by dental professionals using special tools. This is what your dental hygienist is scraping off teeth during dental cleanings. If not removed, tartar continues to build as it subsists on tooth enamel and eats away at tender gum tissues.
Another oral challenge of aging is the reduced ability to properly brush and floss. Conditions such as stiff joints and arthritis compromise manual dexterity. This often makes it more difficult to reach awkward tooth angles at the back of the mouth or the back sides of teeth. When accumulated bacteria are allowed to remain on teeth, the potential for tartar to form – and begin its destructive process – increases.
Post-menopausal females are also more susceptible to the development of gum disease. When hormone levels drop, they become more prone to developing inflammation borne of oral bacteria’s attack on gum tissues.
A study published by the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, “Periodontal Disease and Breast Cancer: Prospective Cohort Study of Postmenopausal Women,” also found that postmenopausal women with gum disease were more likely to develop breast cancer than postmenopausal women who didn’t have gum disease. For women with a history of smoking, the risk of breast cancer was even higher. (http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/early/2015/12/12/1055-9965.EPI-15-0750)
Having regular dental care can be a greater challenge financially to our senior population as well. For some, losing dental insurance after retirement adds a new expense to already-reduced budgets. Because many people assume, “If it doesn’t hurt, then nothing is wrong,” gum disease, which begins without obvious warning signs, can develop and run rampant.
Preventing tooth loss and avoiding periodontal disease are important to maintaining a healthy body at any age. The investment of time and money in having and keeping a healthy smile are vital to having good overall health. As research has found, gum disease bacteria have been linked to heart disease, stroke, some cancers, high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, preterm babies, impotency and erectile dysfunction (ED).
If you are having a higher number of oral health care problems as you age, or you are caring for an adult who is encountering more issues with teeth and/or gums, please call 586-739-2155 to schedule an examination. During this visit, we will determine what steps are best to restore a healthy smile and make suggestions on practical ways to maintain good oral health between dental check-ups.