Dental Decay in the Elderly

As we age, our teeth also age and the health of our teeth can suffer, sometimes causing trouble with nutrition, as well as making us feel less confident.

This occurs over time through the buildup of bacteria, which creates dental plaque. Plaque can hold onto teeth and slowly eat away at the tooth surface causing cavities, also known as decay. Dental cavities or decay can form for months before signs arise.

Once the decay starts to form a hole in the enamel, the following symptoms can occur:

  1. A brown or black stain on the surface of a tooth.
  2. A sore tooth.
  3. Chips or holes in the teeth.
  4. Discomfort when eating or drinking something cold, hot or sweet.
  5. Pain when biting into food.
  6. Tooth pain for no reason.

These are all signs that the protective layer of the tooth is breaking down.

How Dental Decay Affects the Elderly

As we age, our diet and habits start to show in our teeth. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, 31% of people over the age of 75 years no longer have any remaining teeth.

In the elderly, tooth decay can be caused by many different factors, like:

  • Bad hygiene: There may be issues with arthritis, hand weakness and tremors that make it difficult to properly clean teeth
  • Gum disease, which becomes more common as we age: Our gums can become red and swollen, pulling away from the teeth and causing small pockets to form which collect food and plaque
  • Medications for common conditions, which will often cause a dry mouth: Saliva is meant to wash away food and to decrease the strength of the acid caused by bacteria in the mouth, so when medications cause a dry mouth it can lead to faster bacteria growth on teeth

How to Prevent Dental Decay

The secret to preventing dental decay is not a secret at all. Try these five healthy habits to keep teeth healthy:

1. Avoid smoking and tobacco use.

Smoking and/or chewing tobacco are both connected to tooth loss. Talk to a health professional about quitting these habits.

2. Brush and floss daily.

Brushing and flossing are essential for healthy teeth. To help a parent or senior loved one who has difficulty cleaning their teeth, try these tips:

  • If a loved one has dementia and becomes frustrated during the evening, consider brushing teeth earlier in the day
  • Use an electric toothbrush with soft bristles and a small head
  • Use pre-threaded flossers or water flossers to clean between teeth

3. Eat a diet rich in healthy nutrients.

Teeth are strongly impacted by the food that we eat. Make sure that a variety of foods containing calcium, healthy fats and nutrients are eaten. Look at ways to increase the number of vegetables and limit starchy and sweet foods. If missing teeth or a sore mouth make it difficult to eat raw vegetables, consider cooking a puree or vegetable soup.

4. Talk to a dentist about treating dry mouth.

40% of people over the age of 75 struggle with a dry mouth. Make sure that plain water is being consumed throughout the day. Limit the use of alcohol and drinks that are high in caffeine or sugar, which can make the mouth drier.

5. Visit a dentist regularly.

It is recommended to see a dentist at least once a year. Regular check-ups can catch decay before it becomes a large problem. Discuss with your loved one if they are reluctant to see a dentist.

How to Treat Dental Decay in the Elderly

Once dental decay is evident, it is important to see a dentist as soon as possible.

If a loved one has cognitive or physical difficulties, talk to a dentist about how to make treatment easier. There may be offices that specialize in sedation dentistry or working with a person who has cognitive difficulties.