Top Tips to Keep Older Teeth Healthy

The effect of diet on your older relative’s teeth

As people age, their diet may change, which can, in turn, affect their dental health. One of the main changes is that people tend to snack and graze throughout the day, rather than having proper meals.

Every time you eat, the acid in the food can create root caries (when the root surface loses enamel). It takes three hours between meals for this process to repair itself, but if snacks or sugary drinks are consumed throughout the day, it is more likely that there will be dental problems for elderly people; there is no time for the tooth to repair itself during in between the irregular short intervals of not eating. This is especially true if the older person has crowns, bridges and implants.

Top tip if snacking throughout the day

Drinking water after snacks, or eating cheese or milk products at the end of a meal, will help neutralise the acids. Overall the best thing is for an older person to eat proper meals and to snack less and drink sugar free drinks (even tea!) – if they want to keep their teeth healthy.

Why older people need to see a hygienist

Older people should see a hygienist regularly – ideally, every 6 months – to make sure their teeth get a thorough clean and any problem areas can be detected. If teeth are not clean, ‘pockets’ may form. ‘Pockets’ are where the gum comes away from the tooth and abscesses and loose teeth become much more likely. Older teeth tend to have more sharp edges, crowns and bridges, which can act as plaque traps, so cleaning is even more important.

The hygienist will give a routine clean and polish, but will also check the pocket depth in the mouth – where the gum comes away from the tooth to make sure there is no bone loss. If there is a problem, the hygienist can clean under the gum to encourage bone regrowth. The hygienist will also check for decay and soft tissue (potential signs of oral cancer), and will refer his/her patient to the dentist.

A hygienist will need to know about any medications or changes in medical history of the elderly patient, as this can affect gum and tooth health and certain equipment being used, e.g. ultrasonic with pacemakers.

 Top tips if your elderly relative hasn’t visited a hygienist recently

  • Don’t be afraid of visiting your hygienist even if you have not gone for years.  They are used to it and it’s never too late.
  • If you have any specific fears or bad experiences with dentists, do let the hygienist know.
  • If the patient is diabetic: Ask for the first appointment of either the morning or the first after lunch, as in the dental chair, blood sugars level can drop, risking a hypoglycemic patient.

Top tips for cleaning elderly teeth

  • If the older person’s vision is poor, get them a magnified illuminated mirror to use when cleaning their teeth, so they can see where they are brushing, especially the back edges of their teeth.
  • Electric toothbrushes are very good for older people to use, as they rotate for them and clean more thoroughly.
  • If there is a problem with manual dexterity or gripping, put some tape or a tennis type grip around the handle of the tooth brush to make it easier.
  • Specialist interdental brushes are very good for the elderly to ensure good cleaning. These come in many shapes and sizes and your hygienist can advise which is best for their particular teeth and show your older relative how to use them.
  • Mouthwash can also be used for extra hygiene, but NOT instead of brushing.
  • Toothbrushes should be checked regularly and not used if they are splayed, as they do not massage the gums properly.
  • The brush should not be too wet either, as it does not massage the gum as well.
  • Always use fluoridated toothpaste, as this help keep teeth healthy.

Whitening older teeth

There is no age limit to whitening teeth and it is quite an easy process and can be done at home, Older people should be aware that crown and bridgework will not whiten, so this could be a problem if they are very visible in the mouth, as they will end up a different colour to the rest of the teeth, which have been whitened.

Top tips for carers to help the elderly care for their teeth

  • As mentioned earlier, the carer can make sure that the older person can brush their teeth properly themselves and if not, help them.
  • They can also encourage a healthy diet with fewer snacks and sugary drinks.
  • If taking an older person to the dentist surgery and they have specific needs, it will always help to call the surgery in advance to check out things like ease of access, parking, etc.
  • The carer should try to accompany the older person into the surgery if they are nervous.
  • Carers should keep an eye on the health of the older person’s teeth, for example if dentures are a bit loose, or there is any swelling to the gum or broken tooth. It is always best to make an appointment as soon as possible, or the problem may well get worse.
  • If dentures are being worn, the carer should make sure that they are taken out at night or at least a few hours every day to give the gums a chance to breath.
  • If in any doubt, the carer should call and speak to the dentist and hygienist and explain the problem

Every mouth is different and has different needs, so a hygienist will make sure you are getting the right treatment and service for healthy teeth. So make sure your elderly relative sees one regularly to ensure healthy teeth.

Mandy Driscoll has worked as a dental hygienist for 27 years in practices around the West End, North London and Essex, and cares about keeping older people’s teeth healthy.

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