Christopher Smith found himself in the intensive care unit of a Kentucky hospital hooked to a ventilator and a feeding tube after he went to the emergency room. It wasn’t a catastrophic injury or illness that landed Smith in the ICU — it was his tooth.
He hadn’t been to the dentist in years, but had lost a filling in his tooth. What began as a toothache quickly evolved into a dangerous infection.
The health of your mouth is just as important as the health of your heart or brain. Poor oral health can be linked to issues like heart disease, diabetes, stroke or pneumonia. Untreated oral pain can cause problems with chewing and eating, which can harm your nutrition, and could possibly land you in the hospital like Smith.
But many older adults overlook maintaining oral health because they either lack coverage — Medicare doesn’t pay for routine, preventative dental care — or they don’t have time or simply don’t think they need to visit the dentist.
Whether you visit your dentist annually or you haven’t been in a few years, paying attention to how your mouth feels can help you identify potential oral health issues before they become a larger health problem like Smith experienced. Here are five common oral health problems among older adults.
Dry Mouth: Similar to falls or cognitive decline, experiencing dry mouth is not a part of the normal aging process. Dry mouth — not having enough saliva to keep your mouth moist — can cause problems with chewing, eating, swallowing and sometimes even talking. Saliva also helps protect your mouth from bacteria, which means dry mouth can increase your risk for tooth decay.
Dry mouth can be caused by:
- Side effects from medications. Hundreds of medications used to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, pain, high cholesterol and high blood pressure can cause dry mouth
- Radiation or chemotherapy
- Injuries to the head or neck
Gum Disease: This condition is an infection of the gums and tissue that hold teeth in place. It happens when plaque is allowed to build up under and along the gumline. Mild gum disease can be reversed with improved oral hygiene. Brush and floss daily and visit your dentist regularly to prevent or catch gum disease before it progresses.
Mouth Pain: We’ve all had a toothache. If left untreated, a toothache or other pain in the mouth can make it difficult to eat. If you have pain, you may find yourself avoiding certain foods or reducing your consumption of calories to prevent further discomfort. Similarly, keep an eye out for friends and family members. If you notice a friend or family has trouble eating, they may not have a reduced appetite — they may have a painful tooth.
Oral Sores or Abrasions that Don’t Heal: Your risk of oral cancer increases after age 55. Pain is not an early symptom of the disease, says the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, which is why it’s important to be vigilant about any changes to your mouth.
Don’t let preventable dental issues negatively affect your health. Brushing and flossing daily, being aware of changes to your mouth and visiting your dentist at least once per year can help keep your mouth and body healthy.