It's an image we all have, from years of being exposed to television and films.
It is the image of an elderly person with no teeth sitting on the front porch rocking in the rocking chair.
Well as we all know, for many seniors the rocking chair is gone, and has been replaced by a much livelier life style.
And unlike the discarded rocking chairs, many of todays seniors carry their original teeth and don't discard them. Instead they have them for the rest of their lives.
Why the change? What has happened to the days of full dentures or partial plates.
Care is what has happened. The emphasis on tooth care from the time people were children has increased every year since the 1930s and that care is showing up in those that are now retiring and those that have long since quit work.
Dentistry has also come a long way in the last 70 years. Often the most painful thing about seeing the dentist now is either having to keep your mouth open for a long time or the bill that appears in the mailbox afterward.
Products to care for teeth have also made great strides. Electric toothbrushes, new toothpastes, flossing materials that are easy to use all have contributed to better teeth in seniors.
And an awareness that bad teeth affect overall health has increased individuals attention to taking care of their natural dental capacity has also been important.
None of this is to say that seniors don't have tooth problems. They do; it's just that preventive dentistry is more approachable for them now. There are a lot of conditions that exist in the elderly that don't necessarily show up in younger folks as much. Here are some of them.
*Gum disease. This is a disease of all ages, but when left unchecked it can cause the greatest problems in old age. It is caused by plaque and can be made worse when food is left in teeth, by smoking and chew. Diet and other diseases can also affect gums. People who are anemic or diabetic can have particular problems. Cancer is certainly a problem too. People who have ill fitted denture prosthetics can also be at risk for gum disease.
*Denture inflammation is also a problem for those that have dentures. Poor hygiene can cause a fungus that can occur underlying the dentures. Thrush is such a fungus and can be caused by drugs a person takes that alter a persons immune system.
*Discolored or darkened teeth can be caused by changes in the dentin or the tissue that lies under the tooth enamel. For some people this happens because they have had a full life of taking in foods that stain the teeth or drinking such things as coffee continually.
*Taste can change as a person gets older. A recent study showed that by the time a person is 50 they may lose up to 50 percent of their ability to taste. However medications and dentures can also add to this problem.
*Receding gum tissue can lead to root decay which can lead to tooth loss. It is a vicious cycle in which the gums pull down, a tooth is lost and then that causes more recention of the gums, leading to more gum disease.
*Treatments for other diseases can also affect dental health in anyone, particularly in seniors. For instance dry mouth is a result of less saliva flow and sometimes happens because of pharmaceuticals the person is taking. In the case of cancer, treatments using radiation can also affect saliva flow.
*Inability by the person to take care of their teeth can also have great affects on dental health. People who become incapacitated in some way or those with arthritis in the hands may not be able to take care of their teeth properly.
Like anything maintenance is the important part of maintaining teeth. This means daily maintenance, not every six months or a year when a person visits a dentist for a check up. Brushing teeth at least twice a day is important, but if an individual can brush after every meal, and also at bedtime this helps even more. Use a good toothpaste with fluoride in it.
Flossing is also important to keep food particles and buildup from between teeth. Flossing is something many people in the senior age group have not done since they were kids, but has become an important tool for maintaining dental health in recent years.
Maintenance also includes that dental exam visit. It's easy to let things go and skip the exam, particularly when one is feeling good and have no pain. But dental problems can sneak up on a person fairly fast. That's why it is good to see a dentist every six months.
If you have had recent dental exams with the same dentist then there will be a few questions you may need to answer for your dentist. These questions are posed in different ways, but basically they are to find out about any signs you have had of problems with your teeth, gums or even soft tissue in your mouth. The dentist may ask you some general health questions. They may also ask if you have had any pain in any of your teeth or gums. Sometimes those questions will come after the x-rays they take, sometimes before.
If you haven't been to the dentist in a long time or are going to a new dentist they will generally ask you to fill out a questionnaire with information about your general health, what medications you may be taking and if you have any serious health issues. The questionnaire in one form or another will ask in more detail about your health from your neck up; things like if you have had swelling in your gums, if you are having a hard time swallowing, changes in the way your mouth feels, if your jaw alignment feels correct or is off, etc. With this inquiry the dentist is looking for abnormalities that could lead to diagnosis of something as simple as plaque buildup that is causing infections in your gums to serious problems such as cancer.
The dentist may also ask you about your habits, such as chewing tobacco or smoking. Diet also sometimes comes up in an interview about your dental health.
If you wear any kind of dentures the dentist will also ask a number of questions about those. The dentist will check for fit and ask you about any problems you have had with them.
Generally a checkup will also include a teeth cleaning, which while it is going on is not so comfortable. However, afterwards most peoples mouths feel much better. This procedure is usually done by a dental technician rather than the dentist.
The dentist will also do an oral exam looking for problems with teeth, gums and other tissue in the mouth. The dentist will also use the x-rays as a guide for problems that may appear on the transparencies. When the dentist is done with the exam he or she will discuss the findings with you and advise what treatment may need to be done.
Of course one of the documents you will need to fill out is about payment. You need to note if you have insurance or if you are responsible for payment. One of the reasons people often avoid going to the dentist ranges beyond the physical discomfort; it is the excuse that they don't have the money to pay for it. But few things in life are more uncomfortable than living with painful teeth or disease that could be dangerous if not treated. There are a number of alternatives, including senior dental insurance. Some clinics and dentists offer reduced rates for seniors.
But maintenance is the best way to keep the bills down, not paying for it when it breaks. This is where the American Dental Association can come in. They have a program called OralLongevity.
According to the ADA's website (www.ada.org) the OralLongevity initiative is designed to increase awareness about the oral health needs of older Americans. Specifically, the OralLongevity program encourages patients to visit the dentist where they can receive information and guidance from trusted professionals.
The program was launched in September 2007, and aims to create a dialogue among dental professionals, mature consumers and caregivers across the country.
OralLongevity educational materials explore the link between oral health and general health and discuss ways to keep your teeth for life. By tackling oral health problems that impact adults over 60, the information and resources help dentists and consumers work together to maintain and preserve oral health, a healthy body and a great look throughout life.