Myth of the Month: Kids are the most at risk of having unhealthy teeth, right?
April is Oral Health Month and in this article I’ll be laying out some reasons why and how paying attention to your oral health will set you up for preserving and protecting your nutritional health through life’s next chapters.
Dental and oral diseases affect almost everyone regardless of age, education, income and geography. However, some health professionals will argue that aging bodies are most at risk of having not only poor dental health but also more severe consequences, including nutrition-related.
And if you use a feeding tube because you’re not able to eat foods orally? Oral hygiene is still extremely important … and maybe even more so.
The good news? Aging doesn’t have to mean tooth loss – more and more adults are entering and enjoying their senior years with many or all of their natural teeth because of the better preventative care options available.
How poor oral health can impact older adults
Dentures and implants have come a long way, but nothing will work as good as natural teeth. Lifelong attention to the health of your teeth can help keep them in good working order through all your years.
Even the loss of 1 tooth can affect someone’s oral health – all teeth have a special role in the eating process as well as keeping other teeth in their proper place.
When you think of dental problems, you likely think of at least some of the following concerns:
- cost of dental repairs
- pain and infections
- poor self-esteem / less ability to socialize
- decreased ability to speak clearly
- negative impact on overall quality of life
There are many reasons why older adults are at higher risk of having unhealthy teeth and gums. A few of the big concerns are 1) financial ability to pay for dental services, including the ability to see a dentist frequently 2) physical limitations to caring for their own teeth and/or dependence on others for hygiene 3) physical or cognitive limitations that might impact a dentist from even being able to make repairs as needed.
The mouth is the window to the health of the rest of your body.
You may even be aware of the research showing that oral health is linked to other health conditions including heart health, stroke and diabetes. As well, poor oral health and/or oral hygiene can lead to pneumonia, a potentially deadly condition for people with weakened immune systems.
About ‘dry mouth’
Another very common concern for older adults is ‘dry mouth’. In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of dental decay in seniors.
Dry mouth can be due to multiple reasons:
- medications are the #1 cause of dry mouth, with over 500 having dry mouth as a symptom. These include:
- Muscle relaxants
- Appetite suppressants
- being on multiple medications means you’re more likely to experience dry mouth
- having a feeding tube in place with risk of bacterial overgrowth despite not eating by mouth
- diseases may also lead to dry mouth, such as: diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Sjogren’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease
- radiation, chemotherapy, nerve damage, aging process can all affect body’s ability to make saliva as well as the health of your saliva
- being under stress can reduce saliva flow
And it’s more than ‘just uncomfortable’ to have a dry mouth. Saliva:
- moistens oral tissues so they are less likely to become infected
- makes it easier to chew, swallow and taste foods
- is a natural mouth cleanser with antimicrobial factors, enzymes to start the digestion process, minerals to help rebuild enamel
- neutralizes acids in the mouth
But from a Dietitian’s point of view, poor dental health can mean a whole other set of nutrition-related concerns.
Where do I even begin? Basically, there are a number of vicious cycles that start when tooth and mouth health have deteriorated.
These include risk of malnutrition, unplanned weight losses, swallowing concerns / risk of choking and a real loss of being able to enjoy meals and eating.
- tooth loss, lack of dentures or poorly-fitting dentures can have a significant impact on being able to chew a variety of foods … and to chew them safely
- gum recession, exposed roots, worn tooth enamel, broken or chipped teeth cause sensitivity, especially to hot/ cold/ sweet beverages and foods meaning pain and less enjoyment when eating
- mouth pain, whether from infection or mouth sores due to dentures rubbing, means not wanting to eat
- weight losses quickly change the way someone’s dentures fit leading to poor chewing ability, risk of choking, gum irritation and mouth sores
- dry mouth can mean changes in the way food tastes and someone may become dehydrated if they eat and drink poorly … leading to decreased appetite, worsened dry mouth
- food debris left in the mouth, even when oral hygiene is done regularly, can add to bacterial growth, tooth decay and/or potential for aspiration pneumonia for some people already at risk of swallowing concerns … leading to poor intakes and weight loss, changes in denture fit, chewing ability
- … and the cycles continue
Nutrition tips to protect your teeth and gums
1. Limit sugar
The average Canadian consumes 40kg of sugar every year! (Canadian Dental Assoc)
Limiting sugar is not only a great idea for dental health, but also overall health. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- choose sugar-free snacks
- add less sugar to coffee or tea (or use sugar substitute)
- read ingredients labels – honey, molasses, liquid invert sugar, glucose, fructose, corn syrup are all examples of sugar
- when eating sweets, avoid sticky sweets which are harder to remove from your teeth
- try to limit pre-packaged and processed foods which have higher amounts of sugar, are stickier on the teeth (though often less expensive and easier to chew)
If you want to learn more about sugar, how to cut some of it out or how to deal with cravings, stay tuned for my upcoming article. More details are at the bottom of this page.
2. Choose low-acid options
Avoid or limit acidic fruits, juices, pop, wine, etc can wear down enamel over time.
Speak with your dentist for other treatment options or products to help keep or rebuild your enamel.
- eat sweets, drink juice or pop with a meal so saliva can help dilute and wash away sugar
- when drinking fruit juice or other acidic beverages, use a straw to help avoid direct contact with teeth
- try not to graze through the day as constant exposure to sugar on your teeth speeds up decay and cavity formation
- not just food but also any sugar-containing beverage, such as coffee that is sipped over time (with cream and sugar)
- also important if you have candies, treats and gum with sugar around your home that you nibble on through the day
4. Relief for dry mouth
- stay hydrated!
- limit alcohol, caffeine and sugar intakes which can dry out the mouth
- avoid smoking and using oral products that contain alcohol
- if you choose to suck on hard candies or chew gum to help with this, ensure they are sugar free (likely will contain a sweetener called xylitol)
5. Clean your teeth as frequently as possible
Brush teeth after eating when possible. If not possible, rinse your mouth with water, eat raw vegetables or chew sugarless gum to help remove food debris from your mouth.
Speak with your dentist about any concerns you have. Symptoms of poor oral condition can include chronic bad breath, mouth pain, chewing difficulty, etc.
Your dentist will have strategies and tools to help with your oral care. They can also suggest products or ways to adapt your routine if you find it difficult to hold a toothbrush or floss.
Some tips could include:
- insert toothbrush handle into a hole cut into a tennis ball or a bicycle handle to make the handle easier to hold
- attach toothbrush handle to a ruler to extend it if you’re having difficulty reaching your mouth
- flossers / floss holders can help you get between your teeth more easily
- consider an electric toothbrush with soft bristles
- use fluoride toothpaste
As mentioned, aging doesn’t have to mean poor oral health, cavities or dentures. With today’s advanced dental options, many people are in a better position to keep their natural teeth for longer. The most important advice though is to create a daily routine to look after those pearly whites and to stick with it!
Your whole body will thank you for it.
Dental care for seniors (with info about dentures, tips for brushing and flossing, tips for caregivers): http://www.cda-adc.ca/en/oral_health/cfyt/dental_care_seniors/
Are you trying to eliminate sugar from your diet, not only for oral health but for overall health?
Watch for an upcoming article with tips for cutting back on sugar as well as controlling all those cravings.
Get started now with Nutrition coaching. Have improved energy, confidence and control over your eating.
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- Understand different kinds of sugar and their effect on your body
- Gain tools for finding hidden sugars
- Create a meal plan to keep you on track
- Discover your personal eating triggers
- and Learn strategies to overcome challenges and cravings
Review program options to start now.
Or if you’re unsure where to start and want to find out if you’re a good fit for Angela’s programs:
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Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on empowering people with young minds and aging bodies as they enter their retirement years and beyond. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.