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Good Dental Hygiene Supports Your Overall Health

By Lisa M. Davila, B.S.N., M.S.
May 9, 2023
woman with dental hygienist

Dental care was the most common type of health care to fall by the wayside for seniors in 2020, according to an analysis of Medicare participants by the CareQuest Institute for Oral Health.

The University of Michigan's National Poll on Healthy Aging supports this claim, finding that about 20% of older adults cancelled their dental appointments in 2020, and nearly two years later, fewer than half had rescheduled.

While a couple of years without routine dental checkups may seem like no big deal, some serious issues--relating to your oral or overall health--may be flying under your radar.

"I've had conversations with some of my patients about restarting their routine dental care," says Sushmita Srivastav, M.D., medical director at Lantern Hill, an Erickson Senior Living community in New Providence, N.J. "Explaining the importance of having a healthy mouth can go a long way!"

Mouth-body connection

Having chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, can increase your likelihood of developing gum disease. Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can reduce saliva and cause dry mouth, which also increases your risk for gum disease and tooth decay.

Research shows that about two in three adults over the age of 65 have gum disease--ranging from mild (gingivitis) to serious (periodontitis).

Gingivitis is easily treated, but if the infection persists, it could affect more than just your mouth. Some research suggests that, compared to people with healthy gums, people with gum disease have a higher risk of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular-related event.

Scientists don't know why this link exists, but some think it may be related to the body's inflammatory process. Chronic inflammation has been found to be a key factor in the development of several health conditions, especially the hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which is associated with heart attacks, strokes, and other problems with major body organs.

"Some people with severe gum disease--who also have certain underlying health conditions--may be at increased risk for bacteria traveling to other parts of their body, such as heart valves or joint prostheses," Srivastav adds.

Common places oral cancers can hide are the tongue, tonsils, gums, and floor of the mouth. These tumors do not tend to be painful at first, so you may not know you have them!

According to the American Cancer Society, cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx (the area of the throat directly behind the mouth) typically take many years to develop, so most people are diagnosed after age 55.

Early treatment is vital for the best outcome, so be sure to schedule regular checkups with your dentist--they are more likely to notice small changes that could signal cancer.

Tips for a healthy smile

Don't forget to take care of your pearly whites at home! Along with visiting your dentist twice a year for cleanings, the National Institute on Aging offers the following tips:

  • Brush your teeth on all sides with a soft bristle brush and fluoride toothpaste
  • Lightly brush your tongue or use a tongue scraper to help keep your mouth clean
  • Replace your toothbrush every three to four months
  • Floss regularly
  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Avoid tobacco use

If you have arthritis or other conditions that limit your hand and wrist flexibility, try the following:

  • Use an electric or battery-operated toothbrush
  • Buy a toothbrush with a larger handle
  • Attach the toothbrush handle to your hand with a wide elastic band

Health and well-being are at the forefront of the active and engaged lifestyle at Erickson Senior Living communities. To learn more about Erickson Senior Living, request a free brochure.