Age brings about a host of dental problems that are often not given as much attention as is the case earlier in life. Some of these conditions may be associated with age-related changes in the mouth, gums and teeth including lifelong wear and tear, while other dental health problems in the elderly may be seen with various diseases. None of the dental problems seen in the senior years are unique to the elderly but greater care is required to avoid these conditions or at least limit the severity. Every person wants to retain their natural teeth and this is also possible for the elderly if one adheres to good dental hygiene and regular check ups with a dentist.
Saliva secretion reduces with age leading to dryness of the mouth. This is made worse with certain medication and mouth breathing among various other factors. Saliva has a natural antimicrobial action meaning that it prevents the growth of various germs in the mouth. These germs can eat into the teeth and also damage the gum and other underlying tissue. Less saliva also means that food particles and acids are not easily washed away. As the saliva production decreases, the likelihood of dental problems increase. One of the common problems associated with dryness of the mouth is tooth decay and cavities.
The gums tend to recede with age thereby exposing the root of the teeth. Since the root lacks the protective outer covering known as the enamel, it is more prone to decay. Tooth cavities can form at this site and affect the surrounding tissue. This is known as periodontitis. The exposed root also leads to hypersensitivity of the teeth and makes drinking hot or cold beverages uncomfortable or even painful.
Apart from the role of dry mouth and receding gums in increasing the chances of tooth decay and cavities, there are various other factors that may lead to cavity formation. Inadequate cleaning, infrequent dental care or debilitating diseases that limit personal care may also contribute to cavity formation in the elderly. These cavities may expose the inner dentine of the tooth that is very sensitive. Acid reflux is a common condition with age and may also play a role in tooth decay as the highly corrosive stomach acid eats the outer tooth enamel that is the main protective barrier of teeth.
Although several possible causes of tooth hypersensitivity has been discussed thus far, another common factor is wear and tear on the teeth. The outer protective coating (enamel) of the tooth gradually erodes exposing the inner dentine to the environment. This inner tissue is very senstive. The erosion does not expose the entire tooth but creates small channels through which hot and cold beverages and even cold air can reach the inner tissue and cause pain . The role of acid reflux is another contributing to hypersensitivity as it erodes the enamel as well.
Age causes discoloration and particularly yellowing and darkening of the teeth. This may not be dental health problem as much it is a cosmetic issue. The elderly are no different in wanting pearly whites just as much as an adult of any age. Part of the reason for this discoloration is a lifetime of exposure to foods and drinks that can stain the teeth. Another problem is that there may be changes to the inner tissue of the tooth that can lead to discoloration.
Good dental hygiene does not differ significantly with age. What was effective throughout life is still applicable in the senior years if not more so. Brush at least twice a day and do not skip the flossing and mouth wash. Regular dental check ups are essential. Always speak to a dentist about the best course of action to maintain the natural teeth. Age does not mean that one has to accept using dentures. Prevention is the key to dental health as the teeth cannot be regrow and even the best dental intervention can only limit or minimize damage, but usually not reverse it.