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Dental Care for Older Adults

Topic Overview

Dental care for older people is much the same as for younger adults. But older adults do have concerns that younger adults do not. These include caring for dentures, having trouble holding a toothbrush, having gum disease, having tooth decay on the roots of teeth, and replacing missing teeth and broken fillings.

Dentures

Dentures are "false teeth." They can replace all the teeth in your mouth (complete denture) or only some of them (partial denture). If you need dentures, your dentist will measure your mouth and take impressions to create them.

You should care for your dentures as you would your teeth. It's also important to continue to care for your gums. Brush your gums, tongue, and the roof of your mouth (palate) every day with a soft-bristled brush before you put in your dentures. Continue to see your dentist on a regular basis.

To care for your dentures:

  • When you take your dentures out, stand over a folded towel or bowl of water. This way if you drop them, they will not break.
  • Store dentures in lukewarm water or denture-cleaning liquid overnight. Do not put them in hot water, and do not let them dry out.
  • Replace your dentures about every 5 years. Using your dentures daily "wears them out," and you will need to replace them.
  • Clean your dentures every day. Cleaning helps prevent dentures from becoming stained and helps your mouth stay healthy.
    • Rinse your dentures to remove loose food particles.
    • Wet the brush, and brush your dentures with a denture cleanser such as Polident or Efferdent. Do not brush with toothpaste. It can scratch your dentures. You may be able to use hand soap or mild dishwashing liquid. Do not use household cleansers, which may be too rough, or bleach.
    • Brush every surface, scrubbing gently to avoid damage. Use a brush designed for cleaning dentures or a toothbrush with soft bristles. Do not use hard-bristled brushes, because they can damage the dentures.

To care for your teeth and gums:

  • Examine your gums daily before you put in your dentures. Let red, swollen gums heal before you wear your dentures again. If the redness does not go away in a few days, call your dentist. White patches on the inside of your cheeks could also indicate poorly fitting dentures.
  • Give your mouth at least 6 hours of rest from your dentures every day. Your mouth heals more slowly as you age and needs time to recover from the friction of wearing dentures.
  • Don't put up with dentures that are too big, click when you eat, or don't feel good. It takes time to get used to dentures. But if they are still giving you trouble after the first few weeks, talk to your dentist about fitting them again. Don't try to "fix" your dentures yourself.

Using a toothbrush

Older adults with arthritis sometimes have trouble brushing their teeth because they cannot easily hold the toothbrush. Their hands and fingers may be stiff, painful, or weak. If this is the case, you can:

  • Enlarge the handle of your toothbrush by wrapping a sponge, an elastic bandage, or adhesive tape around it.
  • Push the toothbrush handle through a ball made of rubber or soft foam.
  • Make the handle longer and/or thicker by taping Popsicle sticks or tongue depressors to it.
  • Use an electric toothbrush.

You may also be able to buy specially designed toothbrushes, toothpaste dispensers, and floss holders.

Normal dental care

To keep your teeth and gums healthy:

  • Brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day—in the morning and at night—and floss at least once a day. Plaque can quickly build up on the teeth of older adults.
  • Watch for the signs of gum disease. These include gums that bleed when you brush your teeth or when you eat harder foods, such as apples.
  • See your dentist regularly. Many experts recommend checkups every 6 months.
  • Keep your dentist up to date on any new medicines you are taking.
  • Eat a balanced diet that includes whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and is low in saturated fat and sodium. Good nutrition is vital to maintaining healthy gums and avoiding tooth decay.
  • Avoid using tobacco products. They can affect your dental health and your general health.

Many older adults have a fixed income and feel that they cannot afford dental care. But most towns and cities have programs in which dentists assist older adults by reducing fees. Contact your area's public health offices or social services for information about dental care in your community.

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Arden Christen, DDS, MSD, MA, FACD - Dentistry
Last Revised January 7, 2013

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