Loss of teeth, what’s known as edentulism, generally worsens with age.
Many people assume excessive tooth loss is normal for seniors. After all, may other areas of their body also experience failing health.
But tooth loss is usually not caused directly by aging but rather poor dental hygiene. With proper dental care, tooth loss can be significantly reduced.
Trying to maintain as many teeth as possible with age is not just about good looks. Tooth loss is linked to many other problems including a higher risk of dementia, malnutrition (because of difficulty with eating) and poor self-esteem.
To prevent tooth loss, it’s important to understand the most common cause of tooth loss in elderly.
The biggest direct cause of tooth loss in the elderly is gum disease, also known as periodontal disease.
It starts out as gingivitis, a condition characterized by swollen, red and bleeding gums. The gums and other tissue surrounding the teeth then become inflamed, resulting in gum disease.
Over time, gums begin to retract away from teeth and there can be significant bone loss. The structure that was holding teeth in place retracts, causing teeth to get loose or fall out altogether.
But where does it all start?
The main culprit is bacteria in the mouth.
Bacteria build up can be caused by:
- Frequently taking sugary drinks and eating sugary foods such as sweets, cakes and fruit juices. The sugar left behind on your teeth and gums attracts bacteria that slowly eat away at the tooth enamel and infect the gums.
- Poor oral hygiene. Even if you take sugary foods now and then, brushing often greatly reduces your risk of preventing gum disease. That’s because brushing washes away sugar and any bacteria build up. Not brushing or flossing daily is a major cause of gum disease.
- Not getting dental check-ups. Some seniors may be unable to properly brush or floss their teeth, causing bacteria build-up over time. Seeing a dentist at least every six months for a check-up and deep cleaning can help prevent gum disease.
Because symptoms of gum disease are hard to notice in the beginning, most people don’t seek treatment until it is too late.
That’s why frequent dental check-ups are important. If your dentist notices a problem early on, they can start treatment to keep it from getting worse and help you improve your dental hygiene.
Falls are a major and traumatic problem for seniors. As they get weaker and lose stability, it becomes easier to trip and fall.
This can lead to tooth loss and tooth damage requiring extraction.
Other Causes and Risk Factors
Smoking greatly increases the risk and severity of tooth loss. This can happen in several ways.
- Directly causing or worsening periodontal disease. In people already with gum disease, smoking can make it worse and prevent effective treatment.
- Bone loss. Smokers experience more bone loss over time compared to non-smokers. This occurs through production of free radicals, hormonal imbalance and damage of bone-producing cells. Bone loss in the mouth increases the risk of tooth loss.
- Smoking also supresses the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infections that lead to gum disease.
Lower income individuals typically have higher incidence of tooth loss than those who earn more money.
There are many factors that could be at play including lack of proper dental hygiene and lack of regular dental check-ups.
Researchers think that stress could be a factor as well. Increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, increases the risk of periodontal disease.
For seniors, this means looking for ways to reduce stress levels. Being a part of a vibrant community, staying active and regularly interacting with friends and family can help.
Certain diseases are directly or indirectly linked to tooth loss.
Gum disease is an obvious one and is the most common cause. Tooth cavities can also lead to tooth loss, sometimes through a tooth extraction when the cavities reach the inner part of the tooth.
Other diseases that increase your risk of tooth loss include diabetes, arthritis and hypertension.
Preventing Tooth Loss In Elderly
The best way to prevent tooth loss is through good dental care. Encourage your elderly family member to brush their teeth and floss every day.
If they are too weak to do it, help them keep their teeth clean or get them aids to help them brush on their own.
It’s also important that they eat a balanced diet with minimal amounts of sugary foods and beverages.
Reducing or eliminating smoking can also be hugely beneficial for oral health.
If their dental health is already in trouble, see a dentist regularly to prevent it from getting worse. Things like dentures can prevent further bone loss, which will prevent the remaining teeth from getting loose.