With the July 4 holiday right around the corner, the nation gathers to reflect on the nature of independence. Through fraught and bold decisions, the would-be founders of the United States launched a unique democracy by breaking free from the shackles that constrained the young country’s autonomy, as imposed by ruling factions abroad. Today, we ponder less on our emancipation from foreign tyranny and more on the themes of our freedoms and individual liberties. Independence is a cherished American value. Yet for a rapidly aging demographic, independence becomes harder to maintain, increasing their reliance on the assistance of others. This shift also brings changes and challenges to healthcare. And dental health, easily overlooked in too many situations, should be elevated as an imperative in ensuring the longevity, comfort, and physical and mental health of seniors. The importance of this issue is echoed by the American Dental Association (ADA), which is hosting a symposium in August on “improving oral healthcare of the aging population.”
Less Independence, Greater Vulnerability
The ADA symposium, “From Policy to Chairside: Improving Oral Healthcare of the Aging Population,” will offer a wide range of content “including academic trends, current policy, access to care, and the oral-systemic connection.” The event intends to shine a light on the multidisciplinary approaches needed to treat some of the nation’s most vulnerable patients. This follows in line with the 2020 passage of Resolution 77H-2020, which affirms the value of integrating elder care strategies into the ADA’s public advocacy efforts.
A Young Nation Getting Older
The Population Reference Bureau’s Population Bulletin, “Aging in the United States,” examines recent trends and disparities among adults ages 65 and older, and how Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are reshaping America’s older population. The current growth of the population ages 65 and older is unprecedented in U.S. history. Several demographic shifts will occur as a result.
- The number of Americans over the age of 65 is projected to double from 52 million to 95 million by 2060.
- The accelerating changes in racial and ethnic composition of the population under age 18 will likely create a diversity gap between generations.
- Many parts of the country, particularly the rural Midwest, are aging in place because disproportionate shares of young people have relocated elsewhere.
- Average U.S. life expectancy increased from 68 years in 1950 to 78.6 years in 2017, in large part due to the reduction in mortality at older ages. Despite the positive trends in longevity, longer life spans create increasing reliance on physical and oral healthcare in a system where the demand is outpacing the supply of skilled healthcare and dental professionals.
- The aging of the Boomer generation could fuel more than a 50% increase in the number of older Americans requiring nursing home care, to about 1.9 million in 2030.
- Demand for elder care will also be driven by a steep rise in the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, which could more than double by 2050 to 13.8 million, from 5.8 million today.
Medical and dental experts recognize that oral health is a vital aspect of overall health; as patients age, declines in oral health can have profound impacts on seniors with medically, functionally, or cognitively complex conditions.
The Importance of Dental Care for Seniors
People may not readily associate good oral health with physical and mental wellbeing, but the connection is undeniable. The simple joys of eating a cherished meal or being able to speak without complication are crucial aspects of interaction, socialization, engagement, and happiness. These actions also underscore elements of independence. As we age, we often lose the ability to pursue favorite activities such as driving, athletics, or other pastimes. The loss of being able to participate in these activities often signals a sense of forfeiting independence. Socialization – even something as simple as sharing a meal with friends or family – remains an act that reinforces independence. In this way, maintaining oral health is tantamount to maintaining mental health.
Physical and Cognitive Impairments
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the physical and cognitive impairments associated with aging hinder efforts at self-care for normal oral hygiene. Seniors with dementia may forget to brush their teeth. They may not remember how to brush. Seniors with arthritis may struggle with brushing and flossing because of pain in their hands or fingers. And for seniors who must take prescription medications regularly, the side effects of certain drugs produce adverse changes in oral health.
Health Risks Increase with Age
“Dental health is a vital component of your overall health,” wrote Lucy Wyndham in Dental News. “Oral health issues like periodontal disease and tooth decay have been linked to systemic conditions such as heart disease, stroke and infection. With age, the risk of tooth loss and other oral health problems increases, with more than 27% of people over age 65 having no remaining teeth. Edentulism can make it difficult to enjoy a varied, nutritious diet, which leads to further health complications and can diminish a person’s overall quality of life. For people in assisted living communities, it is important for caretakers to be aware of the dental needs of seniors and to take steps towards preventing dental and periodontal disease.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pointed out that oral health risks grow alongside us.
- Untreated tooth decay. Nearly all adults (96%) aged 65 years or older have had a cavity; 1 in 5 have untreated tooth decay.
- Gum disease. A high percentage of older adults have gum disease. About 2 in 3 (68%) adults aged 65 years or older have gum disease.
- Tooth loss. Nearly 1 in 5 of adults aged 65 or older have lost all of their teeth. Complete tooth loss is twice as prevalent among adults aged 75 and older (26%) compared with adults aged 65-74 (13%). Having missing teeth or wearing dentures can affect nutrition, because people without teeth or with dentures often prefer soft, easily chewed foods instead of foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Oral cancer. Cancers of the mouth (oral and pharyngeal cancers) are primarily diagnosed in older adults; median age at diagnosis is 62 years.
- Chronic disease. People with chronic diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, heart diseases, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be more likely to develop gum (periodontal) disease, but they are less likely to get dental care than adults without these chronic conditions. Also, most older Americans take both prescription and over-the-counter drugs; many of these medications can cause dry mouth. Reduced saliva flow increases the risk of cavities.
Dental Care for Seniors on Their Terms
Dental professionals who have come to specialize in treating elderly patients continue to hone the practices, tools, and procedures needed to care for their unique circumstances. The challenge, however, centers around the nature of independence. In traditional dental practices, the onus rests on the patient to find a way to the office. Some seniors don’t have the means and ability to travel. And for them, forgoing preventative dental care increases in likelihood. This is why the modernization of house calls has become an inspired innovation. At Blende Dental Group, we are home of the House Call Dentists.
Mobile dentistry: Care in the comfort of familiar surroundings
Our fully equipped team of dentists, registered dental assistants, and mobile hygienists provide in-home dental evaluations and treatments with portable dental equipment. Based on our assessment, we determine the level of care required and whether treatment can be delivered in the home or under sedation in our office or the hospital. Providing sedation in any of these locations allows us to complete care in as few as one or two visits.
Caring for Seniors Is Our Specialty
We partner with families, care facilities, and health care providers – including dentists, physicians, care managers, and social workers – to develop a targeted daily dental care plan that complements successful treatment. When homebound seniors experience discomfort, we’re dedicated to making treatment as comfortable as possible. Initial visits include exams, digital x-rays, cleanings, and emergency care as needed to rapidly eliminate infection or pain. Our medical and dental teams meet or exceed hospital grade standards for sterilization safety.
Our multidisciplinary team of nationally recognized dentists, anesthesiologists, and MDs allows us to offer palliative treatment to full-mouth restoration in the safety and comfort of your home. We bring state- of-the-art mobile dental technologies to people who are homebound or have difficulty traveling to a dentist. We provide preventative, restorative, and emergency care 24/7/365. Our teams handle the setup and breakdown of all portable equipment, as well as access to our teledentistry platform, which provides real-time access to video visits with your dentist, treatment plans, and more.
We adamantly believe that no barriers to dental care exist. We’ve built on our practice on this concept. Caring for underserved seniors is our mission and our passion.