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Oral Health and Overall Health Connected in Seniors, Says World Health Organization

Posted By Regan Zambri & Long || 11-Aug-2007

Oral health and physical well-being are closely related in senior citizens, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  Reduced mobility often makes it harder for older adults to maintain their oral health, and the resulting dental complications then can lead to poor nutrition.  That poor nutrition contributes to lower overall health, they warn.  Beyond this, complicated regimens of prescription drugs can also affect the oral health of seniors.  A common side effect of many drugs, for instance, is dry mouth, and a perpetually dry mouth poses hazards such as susceptibility to fungal infections.

The National Institute on Aging offers these tips specifically for people with arthritis or hand mobility to maintain better oral health:

  • "Slide a bicycle grip or foam tube over the handle of the toothbrush.
  • Buy a toothbrush with a larger handle.
  • Attach the toothbrush handle to your hand with a wide elastic band."

To maintain good oral health in general, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the following tips for senior citizens:

  • "Drink fluoridated water and use fluoride toothpaste; fluoride provides protection against dental decay at all ages.
  • Practice good oral hygiene. Careful tooth brushing and flossing to reduce dental plaque can help prevent periodontal disease.
  • It is important to see your dentist on a regular basis, even if you have no natural teeth and have dentures. Professional care helps to maintain the overall health of the teeth and mouth, and provides for early detection of pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions.
  • Avoid tobacco. In addition to the general health risks posed by tobacco use, smokers have seven times the risk of developing periodontal disease compared to non-smokers. Tobacco used in any form—cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless (spit) tobacco—increases the risk for periodontal disease, oral and throat cancers, and oral fungal infection (candidiasis). Spit tobacco containing sugar also increases the risk of cavities.
  • Limit alcohol. Drinking a high amount of alcoholic beverages is a risk factor for oral and throat cancers. Alcohol and tobacco used together are the primary risk factors for these cancers.
  • Make sure that you or your loved one gets dental care prior to having cancer chemotherapy or radiation to the head or neck. These therapies can damage or destroy oral tissues and can result in severe irritation of the oral tissues and mouth ulcers, loss of salivary function, rampant tooth decay, and destruction of bone.

  • Caregivers should reinforce the daily oral hygiene routines of elders who are unable to perform these activities independently.

  • Sudden changes in taste and smell should not be considered signs of aging, but should be a sign to seek professional care.
  • If medications produce a dry mouth, ask your doctor if there are other drugs that can be substituted. If dry mouth cannot be avoided, drink plenty of water, chew sugarless gum, and avoid tobacco and alcohol."

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