Our bodies undergo many changes throughout our lifetimes, it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of them all! As we age, we may find ourselves constantly wondering if the changes we’re going through are normal. From our heads to our toes, we are constantly evolving, growing, and changing in ways that may sometimes feel uncomfortable and strange.
One area that is often overlooked is the way our oral health changes as we grow older. Aging occurs in all parts of the body, which of course includes teeth and gums! Especially for older folks, there are many oral health conditions that can become more common as we progress into our later years, so it’s important to know which symptoms are normal and which ones require medical attention.
How Age Affects Oral Health
According to MedlinePlus, there are certain bodily changes that can impact our oral health as we age. Our cells renew at slower rates; our tissue becomes more delicate and less elastic; our bones become less dense and lose their strength; and our immune systems become weaker, making us more vulnerable to infection. Similar to the rest of the body, these changes impact the tissue and bone in our mouths, making us more prone to certain oral health issues.
Here are some common oral health issues that may affect you as you grow older:
Many older folks may experience dry mouth. While this condition is more common for people older than 65, many people can also experience dry mouth at any age due to medicine or other health conditions like Sjögren’s and diabetes.
Our mouths produce less saliva as we grow older, putting us more at risk for not only dry mouth, but other health issues such as:
- Difficulty tasting, chewing, and swallowing
- Mouth sores
- Gum disease and tooth decay
- Thrush, or yeast infection of the mouth
Many older adults struggle with receding gum lines, which can occur as a result of gingivitus or harsh toothbrushing. When the gum tissue pulls away from the tooth, it exposes the base of the tooth to bacteria, increasing the tooth’s vulnerability to inflammation and decay.
Gingivitis is an early form of gum disease that causes inflamed gums. Severe cases of gum disease, otherwise known as periodontitis, can lead to tooth loss and other serious health complications. According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 5 adults older than 65 have lost all of their teeth.
There are certain conditions and behaviors that can increase a person’s risk for periodontitis, including:
- Not brushing or flossing daily
- Lack of regular dental care
- Dry mouth
- Weakened immune system
Cavities and Untreated Tooth Decay
According to the CDC, 96% of adults have had at least one cavity in their lifetime. Furthermore, 1 in 5 US adults has untreated tooth decay.
As we get older, our risk of developing oral cancer increases. In fact, the average age of diagnosis is 62, and two-thirds of people with oral cancer are over 55, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. However, anyone at any age can develop this disease.
Some factors that can increase your risk of developing oral cancer include:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Poor dental and oral hygiene
- Taking immunosuppressants
- Rubbing from routh teeth, dentures, or fillings over a long period of time
Symptoms of mouth cancer include:
- Lip or mouth sores that don’t heal
- White or reddish patches on the inside of the mouth
- Loose teeth
- Growths or lumps inside the mouth
- Mouth pain
- Ear pain
- Difficult or painful swallowing
If you have any persistent signs or symptoms lasting longer than two weeks, see a medical professional for evaluation, as this can indicate an infection or a more serious underlying issue.