The Importance of Oral Hygiene in Older Adults

By Abigail Haller, Screening Integration Coordinator at Elder Law of Michigan

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, 93.25% of adults ages 65 to 74 have untreated tooth decay, missing teeth, or have fillings in their permanent teeth; not including the 5% of older adults who have lost all their permanent teeth. Oral hygiene and proper dental care are essential to living a healthy and independent life. Unfortunately, dental care can become more difficult to manage due to co-morbidity of other health conditions, side effects from medications, and financial and insurance barriers.

When going to a dental appointment it is imperative to be transparent about any ongoing health conditions and any medications being taken. Being transparent helps eliminate the possibility of harmful medication interactions, side effects, and to ensure high-quality care. One very common side effect of medications, according to the American Dental Association, that affects 33% of adults 65 and older, is xerostomia. Xerostomia is also known as dry mouth. The Mayo Clinic states that dry mouth can exacerbate tooth decay, gum disease, and even cause fungal infections like thrush.

Another common oral-health concern for older adults is dentures. Maintaining regular dentist visits for older adults with dentures is crucial for oral health, physical health, self-esteem, and maintaining a high quality of life. In the article A Dentist’s Take on Dentures, Marlo Sollitto writes that health conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and xerostomia can create challenges when fitting dentures properly. The process of getting dentures that form to the mouth comfortably and correctly can be frustrating and take months to finalize.

Even though we know oral health is important, it can be expensive. Most older adults who receive regular Medicare do not have plans that include dental coverage. This can create a huge financial barrier to individuals on a fixed income who have no means of enrolling in dental insurance. However, it is important for older adults to see a dentist regularly, just as it is important to see a doctor regularly. Medicare Part C (Medicare Advantage) is an option for a plan that offers dental, optical, and hearing insurance. Coverage costs, such as co-pays and premiums, can vary at an individual level, so it is highly advised to contact Medicare before opting into this plan.

There is an indefinite need for dental coverage to keep our oral hygiene at its best. Even though there are barriers, there are also solutions. To learn more about dental plans, free clinics, and other oral health care programs for older adults, check out the following resources.

Abigail Haller is a Screening Integration Coordinator for MiCAFE at Elder Law of Michigan. She has been a member of the Elder Law of Michigan team since October 2018. As a Screening Integration Coordinator, Abigail helps seniors in Michigan apply for benefits so they can feel comfortable with the application process.