By National Institute on Aging| Last Updated
No matter the age of a person, oral hygiene is a crucial component of overall good health. When your mouth is healthy, you can eat the foods you love and need for proper nutrition. You will also feel better about smiling, talking and laughing. Teeth are meant to last a lifetime, but proper daily care and regular dentist visit are necessary for them do so.
Teeth are covered in a hard outer coating called enamel. Every day, a thin film of bacteria (plaque) builds up on your teeth. Over time, bacteria can cause holes in the enamel called cavities. Brushing and flossing your teeth removes some of this film and helps prevent decay, but once a cavity happens, a dentist has to fix it.
You can protect your teeth from decay by using toothpaste that contains fluoride. If you have a lot of tooth decay, your dentist or dental hygienist may give you a fluoride treatment during an office visit or recommend using a fluoride gel or mouthwash at home.
Gum disease begins when plaque builds up along and under the gum line. This plaque can cause infections that damage the gums, connective tissue and underlying bone that hold teeth in place. Gum disease often makes your gums red, tender and more likely to bleed. These first symptoms of gum disease are called gingivitis. Gingivitis is reversible and can be remedied with improved daily care, like brushing and flossing.
Other more serious gum diseases need to be treated by a dentist. Left untreated, these infections can destroy the bones, gums, and other tissues that support your teeth and lead to tooth loss. To prevent gum disease:
- Brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day using fluoride toothpaste.
- Floss once a day.
- Visit your dentist at least twice each year for a checkup and professional cleaning.
- Eat a well-balanced diet.
- Stop smoking. Smoking increases your risk for gum disease, bronchitis, lung cancer and other diseases.
Cleaning Your Teeth and Gums
There is a right way to brush and floss your teeth. Every day:
- Gently brush your teeth on all sides with a soft-bristle brush and fluoride toothpaste.
- Use small, circular motions and short back-and-forth strokes.
- Take the time to brush carefully and gently along the gum line.
- Lightly brush your tongue to help keep your mouth clean.
You also need to clean around your teeth with dental floss every day. Careful flossing will take off plaque and leftover food between your teeth that a toothbrush can't reach. Be sure to rinse after you floss.
See your dentist if brushing or flossing causes your gums to bleed or hurts your mouth. If you have trouble holding or maneuvering floss, a plastic floss holder may help. Ask your dentist to show you the right way to floss.
People with arthritis or other conditions that limit hand function may find it difficult to engage in daily oral hygiene practices. To help with limited grip strength and dexterity, purchase a toothbrush with a larger handle or slide a bicycle grip or foam tube over the handle of a normal toothbrush. Securing the toothbrush handle to your hand with a wide elastic band can be helpful as well.
Sometimes, dentures (false teeth) are needed to replace badly damaged natural teeth. Dentures may feel strange at first. In the beginning, your dentist may want to see you often to make sure the dentures fit correctly. Your mouth naturally changes over time, and your dentures may need to be adjusted or replaced to ensure a comfortable fit.
When you are learning to eat with dentures, it is best to start with soft, non-sticky foods that are cut into small pieces. Try to chew slowly, using both sides of your mouth. Dentures can make it harder for you to determine the temperature of foods and liquids and notice things like bones in your mouth.
Keep your dentures clean to avoid stains, bad breath and swollen gums. Brush them daily with a non-abrasive denture care product, and put them in water or a denture cleansing liquid at night. Rinse and clean your mouth after removing your dentures. Partial dentures, or bridges, are used to fill in one or more missing teeth and should be cared for in the same way as complete dentures.
Dry mouth happens when you don't produce enough saliva to keep your mouth moist. This can make it hard to eat, swallow, taste and even speak. Saliva plays a crucial role in cleansing our mouths, so dry mouth can contribute to tooth decay and other oral infections.
Staying hydrated is important, and regularly sipping water can provide temporary relief. However, other solutions are often necessary for lasting moisture. Stay away from sugary drinks and beverages, which can increase your risk of tooth decay. Caffeine, smoking and alcohol can worsen symptoms. Sugarless hard candies and chewing gum are two easy solutions that can help minimize dry mouth. Special mouthwashes and saliva substitutes formulated for dry mouth sufferers can be particularly effective as well.
Many common prescriptions and over-the-counter medications can cause dry mouth. Speak with your doctor about adjusting your medication(s) if symptoms of dry mouth are bothersome or affecting your oral health.
Oral cancer mostly affects people over age 40. Your dentist will look for signs of oral cancer at each dental check-up. Even if you have lost all of your natural teeth, these check-ups are still crucial for early detection and treatment.
You can lower your risk of getting oral cancer in a few ways:
- Do not use tobacco products, like cigarettes, chewing tobacco, snuff, pipes or cigars.
- If you drink alcohol, do so only in moderation.
- Use a lip balm with sunscreen every time you go outside.
Finding Affordable Dental Care
Regular dental check-ups are crucial for a healthy mouth and body. Unfortunately, Medicare offers very limited dental coverage, and state Medicaid programs typically only cover emergency dental services for adults. If purchasing stand-alone dental insurance or a comprehensive Medicare Advantage plan is not feasible, the following resources may be helpful in finding low-cost dental care.
- See if a local dental school or dental hygiene program offers student clinics. These clinics allow individuals to receive low-cost dental care from students looking to gain experience in the field. Visit the NIH National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website to find low-cost dental care.
- Contact your county or state health department to find dental clinics near you that charge based on income.
- Call 877-464-4772 (toll-free) or visit the Health Resources and Services Administration website to locate a community health center near you that offers dental services.
- Check with your state or local dental association to find dentists in your area who offer lower fees for older adults or donate their services.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH), leads a broad scientific effort to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life.