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Keep your smile! Dental health matters

Seniors are at risk for a number of oral health challenges. Joyce Yamada, University of Hawaii Maui College dental assisting program coordinator, has teamed up with the Frank and Gertrude Doyle Foundation and Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit to provide dental information and packets for Maui’s kupuna.

The following strategies are included in the dental packets and help to prevent and manage common age-related gum and teeth concerns.

* Brush and floss daily. Your risk of cavities increases with age. Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Choose a toothbrush with soft bristles and a small head to get to those hard-to-reach areas. Replace your toothbrush every three months or sooner if the bristles become frayed. If you have arthritis or other conditions that limit movement, try an electric toothbrush.

* Clean between teeth daily with floss. If floss is too difficult to work with, try a floss pick or tiny brushes made specifically to clean between teeth.

Be aware of the link between medications and cavities. You may wonder why you’re suddenly getting cavities. One common cause is dry mouth. Dry mouth is a side effect of more than 500 medications, including those for allergies or asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pain, anxiety or depression. This is one reason it’s important to tell your dentist about all your medications. He or she can recommend strategies to relieve dry mouth and prevent cavities.

* Visit a dentist regularly. Get regular checkups at least once a year. Do not wait until you have pain to see the dentist! Why? With age, nerves inside teeth become smaller and less sensitive. There are also more serious conditions your dentist will look for, like oral cancer and gum disease, which do not always cause pain until they reach the advanced stages. By then, it’s more difficult and costly to treat.

* Prevent gum disease. Many older adults have gum, or periodontal, disease. It is caused by bacteria in plaque, which irritate the gums, making them swollen, red and more likely to bleed. If left untreated, gums can begin to pull away from the teeth and form deepened spaces called pockets where food particles and more plaque collect. Advanced gum disease can eventually destroy the gums, bone and ligaments supporting the teeth, leading to tooth loss. With regular dental visits, gum disease can be prevented and treated.

* Quit smoking. It’s never too late to quit smoking. Smoking increases problems with gum disease, tooth decay and tooth loss. It also slows healing after dental procedures and can decrease the success rate of dental implants. Talk to your dentist about quitting. There are tobacco cessation programs, over-the-counter products and prescription medications that your dentist may prescribe or recommend to help you quit for good.

* Monitor mouth for signs of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, 35,000 cases of mouth, throat and tongue cancer are diagnosed each year. The average age at diagnosis is 62. During dental visits, your dentist will check for signs of oral cancer. Regular dental visits are important because the early stages are often symptom free. Early detection saves lives! Common advanced-stage symptoms include open sores, white or reddish patches, and changes in the lips, tongue and lining of the mouth that lasts for more than two weeks.

* Clean dentures daily. Bacteria stick to your teeth and full or partial dentures. If you wear dentures, clean them daily with cleaners made specifically for dentures. Do not use toothpastes for natural teeth or household cleaners – they are abrasive and can damage dentures that are expensive to replace.

Take your dentures out for at least four hours every 24 hours to keep the lining of your mouth healthy. It’s best to remove your full or partial dentures at night. Your dentist will provide you with instructions about how long your dentures should be worn each day.

Senior groups may request the Keep Your Smile! dental packets for seniors mentioned in this article from UH-Maui College Dental Assisting Program by emailing Joyce Yamada at yamadajo@hawaii.eduyamadajo@hawaii.edu.

The UH-Maui College Dental Assisting Program is an accredited two-semester program that provides students with the skills needed to work in the dental profession. Students are taught in the classroom, while receiving hands-on clinical training at community clinics and private practice dental offices on Maui. Program information can be found at www.maui.hawaii.edu/dental.

(Dental information presented with permission from the American Dental Association Mouth Healthy webpage, mouthhealthy.org.)

* Heather Greenwood-Junkermeier is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Aging and Intergenerational Programs. Today’s column was written jointly with Joyce Yamada, UH-Maui College Dental Assisting Program Coordinator. “Aging Matters” covers topics of interest to the aging Maui community and appears on the third Sunday of each month.