Keeping teeth healthy can be a challenge with age

All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth!

Really? That's it? Two? What about 32? I prefer all my teeth. Is that too much to ask?

Oral diseases and conditions are common among older adults for several reasons. Some grew up without the benefit of community water fluoridation and other fluoride products. Many older Americans do not have dental insurance, or their benefits were lost when they retired. Even Medicare, which provides health insurance for people older than 65, was not designed to provide routine dental care.

The two most common oral problems are gum disease and tooth decay, also called cavities. In fact, older adults may have new tooth decay at higher rates than children since the severity of gum disease increases as we age. Both gum disease and tooth decay frequently result in tooth loss. About 25 percent of adults older than 60 no longer have any natural teeth, which results in a need for prosthetics, also known as dentures.

Unfortunately, gum disease, oral health problems and dentures, which are not as efficient for chewing food as natural teeth, often cause older adults to choose soft foods and avoid crunchy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Because these nutritious foods are harder to chew, they are often replaced with softer foods that may be higher in sugar. Or they might just choose to eat less food altogether. Since these problems can be long-term, older adults with gum and dental problems should seek professional support to improve dietary intake and allow for greater food choices.

There are some things you can do to minimize oral health problems. Visit your dentist regularly and report any problems with painful teeth, ulcers lasting more than two weeks, gum abscess, bleeding gums, loose teeth, swelling and soreness or cracks in the corner of the mouth. Ideally, teeth should be cleaned and flossed twice daily. The aim is to remove the plaque and food debris from between the teeth and around the gum margins. Brush all surfaces of the teeth and gums working on two teeth at a time. Brush any loose teeth with care and be sure to notify your dentist about these. Besides brushing and flossing, also:

• Drink fluoridated water and use fluoride toothpaste, which provides protection against dental decay at all ages.

• Limit alcohol and avoid tobacco in any form - cigarettes, cigars, pipes and chew as these increase the risk for cavities and many cancers.

• Report any sudden changes in taste and smell to your doctor.

• Chew sugarless gum.

• Drink plenty of water.

Finally, don't buy into the myth that tooth loss is an inevitable part of aging. Just take better care of your teeth. You don't have to brush all your teeth -- just the ones you want to keep.

"Gee, if I had only my two front teeth, then I couldn't wish you Merry Christmas!"

Source: Oral Health for Older Adults -- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Annie Lindsay is an assistant professor and exercise physiologist at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She conducts research and programming in adult fitness, physical activity, body image and childhood obesity prevention. Contact her at


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