General Health Article:

Dry mouth can cause major problems for older adults

It's a problem that can kill your appetite, crimp your social life, even cause cavities, but it's not talked about much - perhaps because its sufferers also find it hard to speak.

The problem is dry mouth, an all too common condition among older adults that can result in rampant tooth decay if gone unchecked.

When combined with receding gums that expose a soft portion of the tooth, dry mouth puts many seniors at high risk for dental decay, according to the Washington Dental Service Foundation. As a result, approximately 45 percent of 65-year-olds have cavities in the roots of their teeth, and this percentage increases as people age. WDSF is a member of the Healthy Aging Partnership, a coalition of more than 30 Puget Sound organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of older adults.

Seniors are particularly prone because many of the medications they take, including drugs to control hypertension and depression, dry out the mouth. Dry mouth can also be a side effect of antihistamines, decongestants, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and conditions like Parkinson's and diabetes.

Those afflicted may experience a constant sore throat, dry nasal passages, a loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing and speaking, and, ultimately, dental decay.

That's because saliva, in addition to lubricating the mouth, also helps rinse away and neutralize the bacteria and acids that lead to cavities. Sufferers seeking relief may unknowingly compound the problem by sucking on sugary hard candies that can contribute to cavities.

Older adults often are unaware of their dental needs. Many believe, for example, that because they saw a dentist regularly during their working years, they don't need to see one now. Some assume they're going to lose their teeth anyway. The truth is, thanks to improved dental care, most people over the age of 65 still have most of their natural teeth.

What they don't have is dental insurance. More than 70 percent of the state's seniors lack coverage, which prevents them from getting the regular dental care they need. Those who can't afford full-priced care need not go without, however. In many communities, non-profit organizations, community health centers, dental schools and some private dentists provide free and/or reduced-rate services for qualifying patients.

Fortunately, there are many things older adults can do on their own to improve their dental health and prevent dry mouth.

HAP offers these tips:

  • To stimulate saliva, chew sugar-free gum and or suck on sugar-free mints. Look for products that contain xylitol, a sweetener that actually helps prevent cavities.
  • Brush and floss your teeth daily to prevent a build-up of plaque, the sticky layer of bacteria that leads to tooth decay and gum disease.
  • Drink plenty of water, particularly after snacks, and avoid carbohydrate-laden foods that stick to the teeth, including raisins, soda crackers and pretzels.
  • Ask your physician or pharmacist for an alternative medication that doesn't cause dry mouth. If one isn't available, a company called Biotene produces artificial saliva available by prescription.
  • When you see your dentist, ask him or her to paint your teeth with fluoride. Most bottled water does not contain fluoride, so you may miss out on this protection.

For information on other issues related to life as an older adult, call 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464), a free and confidential information line, or visit the HAP Web site at www.4elders.org.

HAP is supported by partner agencies, Public Health Seattle & King County and the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation.