Easy ways to brush up on oral health as you age

People are living longer and keeping their teeth for longer, which means an ongoing dental care regimen is vital, writes Margaret Jennings.

It may not be the sexiest subject to raise about ageing healthily — but how well are you looking after your gums and your teeth?

While our parents and grandparents mostly had dentures by the time they reached their later decades, the scenario is different now with better oral healthcare.

“With improving healthcare, people are not just living longer they are also keeping their teeth for longer,” says Dr Martina Hayes, who has a particular interest in gerodontology — dentistry for older people.

The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) reported in 2017 that five out of six adults aged 54 years and older, now have some of their natural teeth.

However poor oral health impacts directly on our diet and quality of life and research has shown that as we get older

we are at an increased risk of dental decay, gum disease and oral cancer, according to Hayes who is senior lecturer in restorative dentistry at UCC’s Dental School and Hospital.

As we age our gums shrink and the roots of our teeth become exposed — hence the adage ‘long in the tooth’. While this is a normal phenomenon that occurs over time, the root of the tooth is more vulnerable to dental decay and these areas are also typically more difficult to keep clean

- she tells Feelgood

Here are some tips Martina gives for adapting to a changing oral health routine:

RECEDED GUMS

If you notice that your gums have receded, ask your dentist for advice on how you should alter your usual oral hygiene habits. Typically, dentists would advise changing your toothbrush to one with softer bristles and changing your style of brushing to one which is gentler on the soft exposed roots.

Some people also notice an increase in sensitivity to hot and cold, when their roots become exposed. If this occurs it may be worth considering changing your toothpaste to one which specifically targets sensitivity.

DRY MOUTH

Many medications cause dry mouth as a side effect. This can be uncomfortable and it also greatly increases your risk of dental decay. To help fight tooth decay your dentist may prescribe a high strength fluoride toothpaste.

Your dentist or pharmacist can also advise you on the range of saliva substitutes available. These gels and creams can ease the discomfort of dry mouth, particularly at night time.

If you do suffer from dry mouth it’s important to avoid drinking sugary drinks and sucking sugary sweets, to relieve your symptoms. This can result in rapidly progressing dental decay.

DENTAL IMPLANTS

Many of us don’t think that dental implants are an option as we age. However, several studies have shown that dental implants are just as successful in older as in younger adults. Implants can also be invaluable in keeping loose dentures in place — lower dentures in particular.

If you are considering getting dental implants it is important to let your dentist know if you are a smoker; are taking blood-thinning medications; are taking medication for osteoporosis; have diabetes, or if you have ever had radiotherapy to your head or neck.

Not all of these will rule out implants for you completely, but they may affect the surgical procedure or your healing afterwards.

GETTING SHORTER

As our teeth age they can also become worn and short. Your dentist can provide treatment to improve the appearance of your teeth such as adding tooth coloured filling material to make them longer.

However, it is important that your dentist first discovers the cause of your tooth-wear. This will involve questions about your diet, your medical history, and any habits you may have — such as grinding your teeth.

WHITENING UP

Teeth can also appear darker as they get older. This can be reversed by bleaching, which is safe for your teeth but should always be done under the supervision of your general dentist.

BRUSHING AIDS

Brushing your teeth may be a challenge if you have arthritis, have suffered a stroke or for people with neuromuscular conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Aids to help grip the toothbrush can make a big difference - this can be something as simple as elastic bands wound around the handle, or using putty to make a custom grip. For some people, an electric toothbrush can be easier to manage.

Flossing can also become more challenging, but your dentist can recommend alternatives such as small brushes to use between your teeth or flossers with long handles.

CANCER RISK

Dentists recommend having an oral cancer check at least once a year — even if you don’t have any teeth remaining.

While we might not associate Ireland with sunshine, it is important to wear sunscreen all year long when outdoors. If you see a spot or sore on your lip that is not healing you should get it seen by your doctors.

Your dentist will also check your lips, your tongue and the lining of your mouth for any signs of cancer. Oral cancer is usually painless in its early stages and may develop in areas which are difficult for you to see yourself, such as underneath your tongue.

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