Poor oral hygiene can have negative consequences on one’s overall health.
However, according to a recent review published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society, elderly populations are significantly more vulnerable to these consequences.
This vulnerability is reflected in the data. Older adults are twice as likely to have cavities as younger adults. The prevalence of gum disease and oral infections also increases with age.
In the U.S., it is estimated that up to 64% of older adults have periodontitis, a serious gum infection associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
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The authors of the review, some of whom are faculty at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and School of Dental Medicine, outline the specific ways in which geriatric patients are at higher risk.
Firstly, the increased bacterial load connected with poor oral hygiene poses risks unique to elderly individuals.
Simple acts such as brushing one’s teeth can be dangerous with canker sores and any kind of oral inflammation, as oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream. Once in the blood, they can travel and infect vulnerable areas of the body such as heart valves and prosthetic joints.
Some risk factors are mechanical, while others are psychological in nature. Patients with tooth loss may have more difficulty in chewing their food, leading to malnutrition. On the other hand, individuals with dementia may be more likely to neglect the routines necessary to take care of their oral health.
The study authors make several recommendations to promote good oral health in elderly patients. For healthcare providers, they recommend including oral exams as part of their annual physical exams for geriatric patients. They also recommend older adults visit a dental office for cleaning and assessment at least twice a year.
Institutions such as nursing homes have an important role to play, and the authors recommend that risk assessment protocols be implemented to identify patients in these facilities at higher risk of poor oral hygiene. The authors hope that these recommendations will lead to better health outcomes in this at-risk sector of the population.
° by Agustin Dominguez Iino, BSc