By Abigail Hughes, Jessica Raney
University of Southern Indiana
Maintaining proper oral health in the aging population is an important aspect of overall health and it allows older adults to maintain their quality of life, prevent and minimize oral discomfort, and detect oral diseases early. A healthy mouth is an important part of individuals’ communication abilities, smiling and socialization habits, nutritional status, and self-confidence. The purpose of this article is to discuss age-related changes of the mouth and common oral health problems for the aging adult and to provide education on proper oral care techniques and the importance of implementing them daily. This article will also discuss information for caregivers regarding how to provide oral care for a dependent individual.
Normal Age-related Changes
One of the most common changes to the aging mouth is decreased saliva production, which results in a dry mouth. Another normal part of aging is that the tissues of the mouth begin to thin, which increases the likelihood of infections and slows healing of sores. Due to years of wear and tear, the teeth become weakened which can make chewing difficult and can be a factor in an individual’s ability to eat. When combined with the normal change of a decreased sense of taste, these factors can make eating meals difficult and unenjoyable. It is also normal for the muscles of the mouth to weaken as the body ages, increasing the time it takes to chew and eat a meal. It is important to be aware of these normal changes occurring in the aging adult in order to provide specific care that emphasizes their specific needs (Razak et al., 2014).
Common Problems in Aging Adults
Common oral health problems in the aging adult populations are: cavities, tooth loss, gum disease, and thrush. Cavities are formed by the breakdown of the tooth by acid from the bacteria found in plaque. The three factors that contribute to this breakdown and cavity formation are weak teeth, bacteria in the mouth, and eating sugary foods. Although tooth loss is common in the aging population, it is not a normal and expected part of the aging process for adults with good oral hygiene and regular oral check-ups.
Gum disease is the result of swollen and inflamed gums. The signs of gum disease are: bleeding of the gums when brushing the teeth, red, swollen, or tender gums, chronic bad breath or bad taste in the mouth, and gums that pull away from the teeth. If left untreated, gum disease can spread to the bones of the mouth and result in more severe problems.
Thrush is a common oral condition also known as a yeast infection of the mouth and is especially prominent among denture wearers. It is a painless infection that looks like white, creamy film on the tongue and gums and usually needs to be treated by antibiotics. Regular oral and denture hygiene is important for preventing thrush infections (Heath et al., 2011).
Recommendations for Daily Oral Care
- Clean lips with a wet wash cloth
- Apply a lip moisturizer
- Brush teeth twice daily and after meals
- Use a toothpaste containing fluoride
- Use alcohol-free mouthwash if desired to decrease dry mouth and provide fresh breath
- Clean dentures with denture brush under running water at least twice daily
- Rinse dentures after meals
- Soak dentures in denture solution for at least 20-30 minutes a day to disinfect
- Remove dentures and soak in water overnight (Heath et al., 2011).
Providing Oral Care to a Dependent Individual
When providing oral care to a dependent individual, it is important to take some time to inspect the inside of the mouth for any of the previously mentioned signs of oral problems such as reddened, swollen gums, white patches, tooth decay, and loosening teeth. If any of these issues are present, it is important to contact the individual’s dental health professional. The following are techniques to use when assisting an individual with brushing their teeth:
- Have the individual sit in an upright position
- Stand behind the individual and support their head if needed
- Put on disposable gloves to prevent the spread of bacteria
- Gently pull back a cheek in order to visualize the mouth better
- Using a wet washcloth, remove any leftover food stuck between the cheeks or under the tongue
- Brush the teeth using a soft or medium bristled toothbrush or a wet washcloth wrapped around a finger
- If the individual is able to rinse his or her mouth, toothpaste may be used
- If the individual is unable to rinse his or her mouth, dampen the toothbrush with mouthwash or water (Heath et al., 2011).
Oral care is a vital aspect of overall health and wellbeing and its importance remains relevant as adults’ age. The normal changes of the mouth associated with aging put the older adult at an increased risk for oral issues and complications, which highlights the necessity to provide adequate oral hygiene. It is important to provide daily lip, tooth, and denture care while remembering to inspect the mouth for any potential issues. If providing oral care for a dependent individual, it is critical to be thorough in the removal of food and plaque to protect his or her mouth and prevent future complications (Heath et al., 2011).