Care and checkups
At-home care is the first and best line of defense. Floss and brush with fluoride toothpaste at least once daily. If arthritis makes handling a toothbrush difficult, enlarge the handle with tongue depressors, foam or a tennis ball.
Visit the dentist annually, twice if you have a history of dental issues. Checkups are important because, "we also screen for abnormalities in the mouth that can indicate issues such as cancer," says Anita Rodriguez, a dental hygienist for 43 years. Communicate with your dentist regarding additional health issues and medications that may affect treatment.
A third of seniors suffer from dry mouth. "Sometimes it doesn't sound like a big deal, but saliva washes away bacteria and cleanses the mouth," says Karen Lewis, senior program officer, Washington Dental Service Foundation. More than 400 medications -- for high blood pressure, allergies, depression -- can cause dry mouth, which leads to cavities and gum disease. Many low-cost remedies help tremendously, such as avoiding oral products containing alcohol.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 70 percent of seniors have gum recession, an infection that causes complications for those with diabetes. Periodontal diseases affect the ability to effectively control blood sugar levels. "Research shows that when you treat gum disease, it positively impacts diabetes management and can lower medical costs by 10 percent to 40 percent," says Sylvia Gil, policy analyst for the Washington Dental Service Foundation.
Fixed incomes and lack of insurance frequently limit senior dental care. "I encourage people to become savvy health care consumers," Rodriguez says. Feel comfortable stating a budget up front and inquiring about payment plans. "Dentists often propose an ideal plan to make the smile perfect, but ask about all the options," Rodriguez advises. For example, dentists can reduce costs by minimizing costly X-rays and addressing one dental issue at a time.
"You can do a lot to offset the effects of aging on oral health. The trend is that more people are living with their natural teeth," Lewis says. Various local programs provide assistance. Rodriguez operates a mobile dental care unit, ElderCare Dental Hygiene Services, that offers seniors affordable cleanings. There are more than 50 such mobile units statewide, serving sites such as Everett's Carl Gipson Senior Center. Contact your local health district or the Washington State Dental Hygienists' Association (wsdha.com) for locations.
For additional senior oral health information, go to seniorsoralhealth.org.
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