The Aging Mouth: What’s Normal, What’s Not?
If you’re like most seniors, you know that some changes to your body are a normal part of the aging process and others aren’t. The same applies to your dental health. That’s right, the health of your teeth matters as you age, too! So it’s easy to understand why you might be wondering what changes are normal and what might signal something more serious.
What to Expect
The natural process of aging takes its toll on your teeth and mouth just as it does your body. Here are some common oral health changes seniors can anticipate:
Tooth Wear — Chewing, cleaning and the normal processes of aging mean your teeth wear down over time. The wear is more advanced in seniors who suffer from bruxism.
Darker Tooth Color — Aging dentin (the tooth’s middle layer) holds stains easier than younger dentin, making your teeth appear slightly darker. Dental plaque, the sticky invisible film that accumulates on your teeth and traps stains, also builds up faster in seniors.
Gum Changes — Aging gums naturally recede over time. As gum tissue moves up and away from teeth, the roots are exposed. This makes your teeth more vulnerable to tooth decay and more sensitive to hot and cold.
Cavities — Cavities around the root of the tooth are more common among seniors. Any tooth filling material you already have is also aging and can weaken or crack. Your tooth may also decay around the edges of the fillings, allowing bacteria to seep into your tooth and create new decay.
Cause for Concern
Some changes to your teeth and gums aren’t normal and shouldn’t be overlooked. These symptoms could signal something more serious and are reason to talk to your dentist right away:
Tooth Loss — Dental cavities and gum disease are the leading culprits of tooth loss in seniors, but neither is a normal part of aging. If your teeth and gums are healthy, there’s no reason why your teeth should fall out. With good oral hygiene and regular professional care, your teeth are meant to last a lifetime.
Dry Mouth — Many seniors experience a reduced flow of saliva, sometimes as a side effect of medical conditions, medications or medical treatment. The problem is that saliva is needed to lubricate the mouth, wash foods away and neutralize the acids produced by plaque. Left untreated, dry mouth can lead to tooth decay.
Bleeding Gums — Experiencing bleeding gums when you brush is a sign of periodontal (gum) disease, a leading cause of tooth loss in seniors. But gum disease is not an inevitable result of aging; it’s caused by the build up of plaque. Left untreated, gum disease is linked to other health concerns like arthritis and heart disease. If you think you have gingivitis or gum disease, see your dentist for gum disease treatment.
Mouth Pain — Any lesion found on the tongue or anywhere in the mouth should be examined by a dentist. Such sores can signal gum disease or oral cancer. Seniors are at higher risk for oral cancer, especially smokers, heavy drinkers and those who’ve had a lot of exposure to ultraviolet light.
Regular dental visits can help detect and treat dental problems in the early stages and are just as important for seniors as for younger people. Simple self-help tips such as brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing daily are also important in combating the effects of aging. Talk to your dentist to find out how often you should come in for routine dental care.