General Health Article:

Keeping Healthy for a Lifetime Means Watching Your Mouth

by Richard L. Sagers, DDS
Trustee, Washington Dental Service

Health providers across the nation are developing a new appreciation for what may be the most neglected body part: the mouth. For many seniors, that attention won't come soon enough.

More than one-quarter of adults aged 65 to 74 have lost all their natural teeth. By middle age, 48 percent have gingivitis and 22 percent have destructive gum disease. Those figures are from the first-ever report on oral health released recently by the U.S. Surgeon General, who called on Americans to practice better prevention.

The best way to have a healthy mouth is not to develop oral diseases in the first place. Yet tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease in America. That's why a new effort in Washington state, the Citizens' Watch on Kids' Oral Health, has taken up making our communities more effective in providing the policies and programs children need to get affordable treatments like check-ups, sealants and fluoride. Its slogan is "Watch Your Mouth" - and that's a message you will.

want to spread to children and grandchildren, as well as to the policymakers you come in contact with. A lifetime of good health means protecting people across the age span, and that begins in the early years.

For seniors, good oral health can add years and quality to one's life. Research suggests that periodontal disease may contribute to the development of heart disease and increase the risk of stroke. Periodontal disease can also pose a serious threat to people with diabetes or respiratory diseases.

But even if you don't enjoy perfect dental health in your later years, there's a lot you can do now to improve it. The Healthy Aging Partnership - a coalition of 27 nonprofit and public senior services agencies in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties - has some important tips.

One of the changes you may notice as you grow older is in tooth color. Plaque builds up faster and in greater amounts as we age. Changes in dentin, the bone-like tissue that is under your enamel, may also cause your teeth to darken. These age-related changes underscore the importance of at-home and dental office teeth cleanings.

Get a dental check-up and have your teeth cleaned every six months. Floss daily and brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Ask your dentist about fluoride rinses and gels, which may also relieve tooth sensitivity.

Avoid snacks with sugars and cooked starches. If you do snack, remember to brush your teeth afterward. Even rinsing your mouth out with water after snacks can reduce the risk of decay.

Tell your dentist what medications you are taking. Dry mouth can be exacerbated by certain medications, antihistamines, decongestants, antidepressants, diuretics, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and nerve damage, along with illnesses such as Parkinson's, Sjogren's Syndrome and diabetes. Try sipping water frequently as well as avoiding caffeine and nicotine products.

If you need assistance finding dental care, or need information on virtually any other issue related to life as an older adult, call 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464). This toll-free, confidential information and assistance line is a service of the Healthy Aging Partnership. For more information, visit our Web site at www.4elders.org.