Aging and our teeth
In Canada, like in many other countries, taking care of our teeth has resulted in teeth retention much later in life than in the past. This is due to oral health promotion, disease prevention (e.g. use of fluoride toothpaste), and increased restorative oral care measures (e.g. dental implants). The percentage of individuals who have no natural teeth (edendulism) has drastically dropped in the last 2 decades going from 17% to 6.4% (1). Many seniors can now enjoy the benefit of having some or even most of their teeth. This allows them to eat a wide variety of good-tasting and nutritious foods. Having the ability to properly chew food also ensures sufficient nutrient absorption and increased well-being, which cannot be achieved at the same level with dentures (2,3).
Maintaining good oral health is of great importance. Indeed, neglected oral health may lead to pain, discomfort, and serious infection that could even result in hospitalisation. Moreover, mobile or missing teeth, loose dentures or partials, and presence of cavities are all factors that can be a barrier to communicating and having a social life. Associated with other health disorders, untreated oral diseases are a growing concern. Even more so with recent studies that have linked oral diseases to other diseases like type II diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and pulmonary infections (4,5,6,7). In addition, having regular oral check-ups increases the chances of early detection of oral cancers. Regular oral check-ups can also reduce morbidity and even mortality. (More information on oral cancer can be found at: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/oral-diseases-conditions/oral-cancer.html)
More needs, less resources
Results from the Canadian Health Measure Survey (CHMS) have shown that more seniors are keeping their natural teeth longer and therefore have increased oral health care needs. The survey compared the percentage of adults with root decays aged 60-79 years of age to adults aged 20-59 years of age from the sample. The results showed that the number of root decays was almost three times higher in the older adults compared to the younger adults. The survey also showed a much higher rate of gum disease among the 60-79 age group.
These higher rates of cavities and gum diseases can be attributed to many risk factors often associated with aging. We can sometimes notice a change in the diet pattern for soft and sticky food. Also, a reduction in the saliva flow, called xerostomia, has been identified as a side-effect in over 400 drugs. As we age we are more likely to be on such medications. Since the saliva flow has an important role in protecting the teeth from cavities, a lower flow can then result in higher risk of developing dental decays for many seniors taking medications. Moreover, as we age, we can experience a reduction in dexterity and independence, which can impact the quality of flossing and brushing. With more plaque present, there is a direct impact on gum diseases and an increased risk of dental decay.
Having dental insurance coverage was found to be one of the main factors that determine whether Canadians see a dental professional for dental care. This is a matter of concern for many seniors who might lose their private dental insurance after they retire. Results from the CHMS show a constant decline of people with private dental insurance as they get older (60 to 79 years of age). In addition, seniors may over time modify their behaviour in regard to their dental care and opt to seek an oral health professional only on an emergency care basis (1).
Planning for the future
It is of great importance to start planning early for many aspects of your retirement. Maintaining your oral health care as you age should be part of your planning process. Poor oral health can impact your overall wellbeing in your 'golden years'. Adopting healthy oral health habits, like reducing your consumption of sugary foods and sweetened beverages, daily brushing and flossing of your teeth, and regular dental check-ups can go a long way in maintaining good oral health in your senior years. You should also start early to plan financially for your dental care needs and also let your family know of your desires in terms of your oral care in the eventuality you do not have the capacity to decide on your own. It's important to start planning early for your oral health care needs now so you can enjoy retirement in the future!