Nearly all adults (96 percent) aged 65 years or older have had a cavity; 1 in 5 have untreated tooth decay.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don't get any better, showing that about 2 in 3 (68 percent) adults aged 65 years or older have gum disease.
Dr. Eric Compton, of Compton and Broomhead Dental Center in Munster, says that the local numbers and issues reflect the CDC statistics.
“When I first begin to practice dentistry, I visited nursing homes with my father (George), who was also a dentist,” Compton says. “We visited as many as 30 nursing homes as part of our practice. So we saw up close what type of issues seniors were dealing with regarding oral health.”
Seven years ago, Compton created Dental Home Health, a service that brings dentistry to the homes of those unable to go to the office. He is also the director of dental services at Hartsfield Village, the senior living facility that's part of Community Healthcare System.
“When we turn 65, our bodies begin to change in several ways,” he says. “Many of us take more medications, which can have a negative impact on oral health. Some of us have flexibility issues, which can make it harder to brush and floss. Medicare does not cover dental services and not everyone can afford a separate policy, so money can become an issue. There are several factors that result in oral health issues.”
Fillings, crowns and dentures have a life expectancy, according to Compton. “These all break down over time,” he says. “They were never designed to last 40 or 50 years. I have patients that have taken very good care of their oral health yet need to replace fillings and crowns because they are breaking down.”
So it’s not surprising that seniors may experience more dental problems than they did in their first 65 years.
Compton promotes preventive care. “I encourage my senior patients to think about coming in more than twice a year,” he says. “Depending upon their situation, we discuss a visit every three or four months instead of six.”
An extra visit for a thorough cleaning and exam is much cheaper that an extraction, cavity or implant, Compton explains: “You want to keep your own teeth whenever possible. Plus, we can examine our seniors to ensure that they can still take care of their oral health.”
Dental problems occur quickly in seniors and can become serious in a short amount of time. “If you’ve been brushing your teeth for 65 years, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced gum recession,” Compton says. “That can mean root decay problems. Root decay manifests much quicker and becomes a serious gum issue between visits. A new medication can result in dry mouth and increase the risk of cavities. Dexterity issues that can make it harder to brush and floss can allow for the buildup of plaque and tartar in recessed areas.”
Compton also recommends types of toothpaste, brushes, flossing materials, and mouth rinses: “Every patient is different, and it’s important that the treatment program is tailored for the patient. There’s not a standard answer for everyone.”
He also encourages family members to inquire about their senior relatives' oral health. “We ask our parents about medical issues, but we tend to forget about dental issues,” he says. “It’s important to remember that serious oral health issues can lead to cardiovascular problems, among other health issues.”