Growing old is not easy. In terms of promoting proper elder dental care, which also impacts overall well being, the challenges are just beginning to be understood and quantified. Based on statistics from the American Dental Association, approximately one fifth of older Americans have not visited a dentist in the last five years. The statistics are alarming; the facts are even more worrisome. A combination of factors has brought about the current care gap, and there are no easy solutions.

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The Erosion of Care

Age itself is a cause of some of the problems: Older teeth chip and fillings deteriorate. Gum problems are more common when seniors ‘forget’ to brush and floss or have physical problems such as arthritis that prevent effective oral hygiene. Financial considerations are a major concern because Medicare and Medicaid programs do not cover routine dental care in most states. Dental implants are rarely covered by government or private insurances. Private insurance plans limit services and are often inadequate; they are canceled at specific age thresholds and can be cost prohibitive. An increasing number of emergency room visits are for dental problems.

Common Causes

Seniors, for a number of reasons, are at higher risk for cavities. Dry mouth symptoms, heightened by certain medications, encourage the formation of plaque, which leads to cavities. More than 500 medications contribute to dry mouth and common beverages, including coffee, alcohol, carbonated drinks and acidic juices, irritate the condition. Professionals recommend keeping your mouth hydrated; simply rinse frequently, and keep a water bottle handy. That’s good advice no matter what your age.

The progression of dental problems and gum disease is not a straight-line affair. Gingivitis and other periodontal problems with elder dental care are sometimes not obvious until they are serious. By that time, the deterioration may be extensive and the downward spiral begins. Gum disease is the most common cause of lost teeth among the elderly, and leads to nutritional deficiencies, deformity and perhaps even other ailments. The links between poor oral health and other disease are evident: They include cardio-vascular ailments, immune system disorders, diabetes and even dementia.

Oral cancers and various other conditions also have an effect on the condition of mouth and teeth. Regular dental care, however, is the antidote as well as the best means of detection. Elderly citizens sometimes also become childlike, fearing the pain and ‘bother’ of dental appointments and ignoring recommendations. Caregivers and nursing home professionals view this resistance as a major concern. This adds to finding appropriate sources of care. In rural communities, and in many states, there is a shortage of dental specialists who are willing to treat the elderly.

Taking the Next Steps

Better dental insurance plans for the elderly

Many hope for reformed American dental care insurance coverage. It is already leading to a wave of change by the dental profession itself. In California, analysis showed that 38% of the elderly residents in long-term care facilities had none of their original teeth. That has brought about some change in dental student training programs. Geriatric dental care is a specific specialty that, until now, has received very little attention.

There is a new emphasis on the importance of maintaining oral health. Elderly are receiving better care bit by bit.

Until that time, if you have an aging parent or relative, or if you are approaching your senior years yourself, why not resolve to make that appointment? Even if there are financial concerns, proper elder dental care is worth it.

This article was recently edited. Originally published: February 22, 2016.