Oral Health Overview
Oral health, regardless of age, is integral to overall good health. It is an important but often overlooked aspect of an older adult’s general health. Daily oral hygiene, the ability to access routine professional oral health services, and oral health education are all key factors that can improve the oral health of older Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a quarter of all persons age 65 and older have no remaining teeth. Nearly one-third of older adults have untreated tooth decay. Severe gum disease is associated with chronic disease and severe health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory disease.
Older Adults and Oral Health: Inspiring Community-Based Partnerships for Healthy Mouths Webinar (May 15, 2013)
This webinar explores the oral health status of older adults in the U.S., provides useful resources, and highlights two innovative community approaches to improving oral health access for older adults.
Who’s Leading the Leading Health Indicators? (August 20, 2012)
- Oral Health Problems
Whether caring for natural teeth or dentures, daily oral hygiene can mean that older adults will be free of oral pain, maintain a well-balanced diet, and enjoy interpersonal relationships and a positive self-image. Without practicing good oral health, advancing age may put older adults at risk for a number of oral health problems, including:
- Dry mouth
- Diminished sense of taste
- Root decay
- Gum disease
- Uneven jawbone caused by tooth loss
- Denture-induced tissue inflammation
- Overgrowth of fungus in the mouth, known as thrush
- Attrition (loss of teeth structure by mechanical forces)
- Oral cancer
Oral health problems in older adults make it more difficult for them to consume a healthy diet. Physical factors directly affecting nutrition include: changes in chewing ability; dry mouth, a common side effect of medicine; untreated tooth decay; loose or missing teeth, dentures, or implants; and ill-fitting bridges or dentures. Regular oral health care can improve and prevent oral health problems.
- Accessing Affordable Dental Care
Good oral hygiene, a healthy lifestyle, and regular dental check-ups are all important steps to a healthy mouth. While it can be difficult for older adults to access typical health care settings, it can be especially difficult to access the oral health care system. Barriers to accessing affordable oral health care include:
- Living on a fixed income
- Cost of oral health care
- Limited dental insurance for retirees (not included in Medicare)
- Limited oral health programs that offer affordable services
- Mobility and transportation limitations
- Translation for immigrant older adults
Accessing dental care can be especially difficult for nursing home residents. Paying for dental care using Incurred Medical Expenses (IME) helps long-term care residents get dental treatment and allows dental practices to be reimbursed for services. IME is routinely used for eyeglasses and hearing aids, but many people are unaware that it is also available for dental treatment. A resource for IME billing is Suggested Steps for Residents and their Representatives.
Resources are available to help overcome barriers to accessing affordable oral health care. The Health Resources and Services Administration funds Community Health Clinics (CHC) that care for people even if they have no dental health insurance. The majority of CHCs provide dental services. Find a federally funded health center near you, where you pay what you can afford based on your income.
If transportation is a barrier to receiving care, the Eldercare Locator can direct you to a local Area Agency on Aging (AAA). The majority of AAAs provide some form of transportation assistance or referral. For more information on the Eldercare Locator or services for older adults and caregivers, call 1-800-677-1116.
Other options to help overcome barriers include:
- Contact a state chapter of the American Dental Association
- Contact a state or local chapter of the American Dental Hygienists Association
- Contact a dental school
- Professional association “find-a-dentist” tools:
- Read Finding Low-Cost Dental Care from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research