By Jeff Hambleton, MD

June is National Smile Month, which is a good opportunity to draw attention to the importance of oral health, particularly for older adults. With water fluoridation and better dental care many people are keeping their teeth longer than ever before. But here’s a surprise for many pre-retirees. Medicare does not cover dental. In a recent state survey a majority of people 60 and older mistakenly believe that dental is part of basic Medicare.

Good oral health is important for the health, quality of life, well-being and finances of seniors. Since dental is not included in Medicare preventing oral disease should be a priority, especially given the rapidly aging population.

Oral health affects overall health

There is good reason to be concerned about oral health. Poor oral health is linked to other serious health conditions.

– Gum disease is an infection in the mouth that can spread to other parts of the body.
– Poor oral health is linked to diabetes complications, heart disease and stroke.
– People with diabetes are up to three times more likely to develop gum disease, and the infection caused by gum disease makes it harder to control blood sugar.
– It is difficult to sleep, get proper nutrition and eat the foods you love if you’re in pain from dental problems.

By the year 2030, it is projected that almost one out of every five Americans will be 65 years or older. Clearly there needs to be more focus on the oral health of older Americans as well the responsibilities of communities to provide support and access to care, particularly for low-income seniors. Older adults, healthcare providers and people serving seniors can help by sharing information about how to prevent oral disease.

Tips for better oral health

  • Brush and floss every day – Brushing and flossing lead to better oral health. Flossing daily cleans tooth surfaces that brushing doesn’t reach and helps prevent gum disease.
  • Get oral health checkups – Regular oral health checkups are important to detect problems that might quickly get worse and expensive to treat. People with diabetes need to pay close attention to their oral health because gum disease can make it more difficult to manage diabetes.
  • Use fluoride – Fluoride toothpaste and fluoridated water prevent cavities because fluoride strengthens teeth. Gums recede as we age, so fluoride is particularly important for seniors. Root cavities can be very painful and difficult to treat.
  • Treat dry mouth – Dry mouth is a common side effect of many medications and medical conditions and can quickly lead to major oral health problems. Sipping water throughout the day can help. Ask your doctor, dentist or pharmacist about other treatments.

Many older adults can keep their teeth as long as they live, if they take care of their mouths. Good oral health leads to better overall health and saves money too. Visit The MightyMouth.org for more information on how to prevent oral disease.

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Dr. Jeff Hambleton is a family physician and Chief Medical Officer at Providence Medical Group

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