Caring for Your Aging Mouth

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Oral health, as we age, is incredibly important and has a direct effect on our overall health. Healthy teeth and gums are essential to eating well and savoring good food. While several problems can affect the overall health of your teeth and gums, taking good care of your oral health as you grow older is essential.

The first step toward a healthy mouth is making sure you have the necessities: a toothbrush and toothpaste. Our teeth are covered in the hard, outer coating known as enamel. As we go about our day, a thin layer of bacteria builds up on our teeth and produces what’s known as plaque. This can harm the enamel and lead to unwanted cavities. Brushing and flossing your teeth daily can ward off tooth decay. However, once a cavity forms, a dentist must fix it.

When plaque is left untreated, it can lead to gum disease. This occurs when the plaque begins to venture up along and under the gum line. Infections can result and irritate the gum and bone that hold your teeth in place. Your gums may begin to feel tender or they may even bleed. Again, brushing and flossing daily is a great preventive habit to develop. A severe form of gum disease, periodontitis, must be treated by a dentist. Otherwise, it could lead to the breakdown of the bones, gums and other tissue needed to support your teeth. Over a period of time, your teeth may have to be extracted.

Be sure to routinely examine your lips and the inside of your mouth. If you see any cracking, lumps, sores or white or red lesions, consult with your dentist immediately. It is important to floss all of your teeth, including implants and dental bridges. Use a soft-bristle toothbrush and brush each tooth in a small, circular motion applying gentle pressure. Brush for two minutes at least twice a day. Don’t forget to brush your tongue and the roof of your mouth as well. After brushing, be sure to rinse your mouth thoroughly with water or with an alcohol-free, germ-fighting mouthwash. If you wear dentures, it is imperative you clean them daily and be sure to remove them at night before going to bed.

Taking care of your oral health is not simply limited to brushing and flossing, however. You should also consume a well-balanced diet, quit smoking, and visit your dentist regularly (most recommend every six months) for a thorough checkup and cleaning.

If you suffer from arthritis and cannot adeptly use a toothbrush, it may be helpful to switch to an electric or battery-operated toothbrush. You can put a bicycle grip or foam tube over the handle of the toothbrush to make it easier to grasp. If you don’t want to use an electric toothbrush, opt for a toothbrush that has a larger handle. You can attach the handle to your hand with a wide elastic band to keep it in place. If you struggle with flossing, or if it causes your gums to bleed, ask your dentist to demonstrate the proper way to floss.

Dry mouth is another concern as we age. Without enough saliva to keep your mouth wet, it can be difficult to eat, swallow, taste or even speak. Dry mouth can accelerate the tooth decay process and lead to other infections of the mouth. Many medications can cause this problem. To alleviate some of the problem, try sipping water or sugarless drinks, or use a moisturizing spray developed for dry mouth. Avoid smoking or consuming alcohol and caffeine.

Most important to your overall oral health is keeping those regular appointments with your dentist. Oral cancer is a significant concern for individuals over the age of 40. Your dentist can look for signs of this cancer. Be aware that pain is not usually an early indicator of the disease, so you might not even be aware of it. Treatment is best applied before the disease spreads. Even if you have lost all of your natural teeth, it is still important to have regular oral cancer exams.

Maintaining proper dental care can be costly. Medicare does not cover most dental care and few states offer dental care coverage under Medicaid; if they do, it might be limited coverage. Private dental insurance is an option, but be aware of the cost and of what services are covered. Some individuals have benefited from seeking care at dental schools that have clinics at which students acquire experience in treating patients at a reduced cost, supervised by qualified dentists. Additionally, your county or state health department is a great resource to help you find a dental clinic near you. These clinics typically charge what you can afford based on your income. ■

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