The crunch of biting into a ripe apple, the sweet buttery taste of corn on the cob, the chewy goodness of juicy steak — these are all sensations that some older adults can no longer enjoy as the result of tooth loss.
Some 27 percent of people over the age of 65 have no remaining teeth, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. The average person in that age group, however, has about 19 pearly whites left.
Older African Americans, smokers and those with lower incomes and less education tend to have greater tooth loss, according to the NIDCR.
On the plus side, partial and total tooth loss in seniors has generally decreased between the early 1970s and 2004, when the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey was conducted.
In addition to tooth loss, seniors can face a number of oral health problems as they age including root decay, which occurs when a significant part of the root becomes exposed; tooth decay caused by weak or chipped fillings; and periodontal disease, which causes inflammation around the tooth; according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
“We do have some members that are missing either the top or bottom half of their teeth, so we have to be mindful of that when we are preparing food,” said Jacqueline Eradiri, executive director of the Ridgewood Older Adult Center. “We make sure the food is soft enough, so they can eat it, but not mushy.”
Eradiri said some seniors take out their dentures before a meal, because they say the false teeth hurt, but sometimes they accidentally end up throwing them in the trash when they empty their food tray. “Then they have to go garbage diving,” Eradiri said.
In addition to disease and discomfort, tooth loss can have psychological and emotional consequences. These include social embarrassment, avoiding going out in public, speech problems, problems with relaxation and more, according to the Academy of General Dentistry in Chicago.
Proper oral care and regular visits to the dentist can help prevent some of these conditions, but for elders with arthritis, for example, brushing one’s teeth can be a chore.
For those with physical impairments to their hands, the ADHA has several tips. The organization suggests adapting one’s toothbrush handle so that is easier to grip by inserting it into a rubber ball or sponge hair curler.
Toothbrush handles can be made longer with common easy-to-find items like an ice cream stick, plastic ruler or tongue depressor, according to the ADHA.
An electric toothbrush may also be helpful to those who have dexterity problems. They are effective at removing plaque while stimulating gums, the ADHA says on its website.
Teeth can be replaced through a number of dental procedures including dental implants, which are artificial tooth roots surgically anchored to the jaw to hold a new tooth in place; a bridge, which is a fake tooth or teeth between two porcelain crowns used to fill in a gap left by a missing tooth or teeth; and dentures, a removable replacement for missing teeth.
“For small tooth loss, like three to five teeth, we recommend implants or bridges because they are more comfortable when eating food and have less side effects,” advised Dr. Andrew Kuznetsov of Atlas Park Dental in Glendale. “For bigger tooth loss, like five teeth or more in one area, full or partial dentures are better.”
Dentures are perhaps the most common tooth replacement method among seniors, and require special care to function effectively.
Kuznetsov recommends that when people get dentures for the first time, they should practice wearing them for about five days, before attempting to eat with them. After that, they should slowly increase their intake starting with soft foods like Jello or mashed potatoes.
Because dentures can cause changes in speech and are a foreign object in the mouth, Kuznetsov recommends that wearers practice reading aloud to help correct impediments.
False teeth can also cause changes in taste, because they cover part of the palate where tastebuds are located, according to Kuznetsov, but that can dissipate with time.
Dentures must be cleaned daily, both inside and out, with a soft tooth brush and rinsed with cool water, according to the ADHA. Good cleansers are denture powder or paste, hand soap or baking soda. Never use toxic or abrasive household cleaners.
When one is not wearing one’s dentures, they should be covered with water or a denture cleaning solution so they don’t dry out, according to the ADHA.
“We are always reminding them to clean their teeth because plaque and germs can build up,” Eradiri said of the seniors at her center, adding that not doing so can lead to bad breath.