Oral Health for Older Adults

Sanford Center for Aging

What does 'oral health' mean?
  • According to the FDI World Dental Federation, "Oral health is the ability to speak, smile, smell, taste, touch, chew, swallow, and convey a range of emotions through facial expressions with confidence and without pain, discomfort, and disease of the oral cavity."
  • Disease in the mouth can negatively impact the overall health of an individual.
  • Several studies have found an association between periodontal (gum) disease and various systemic diseases, including respiratory disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  • Loss of teeth can negatively impact facial appearance and the ability to eat, which can lead to decreased social interactions and possibly depression.

Oral health problems
  • Dry mouth, also called xerostomia (ZEER-oh-STOH-mee-ah), is the condition of not having enough saliva to keep the mouth wet.
  • Dry mouth is not a normal part of aging. It happens mostly because of certain medications.
  • Dry mouth can increase the risk of fungal infection and tooth decay.
  • See your dentist or doctor if you feel your mouth is often dry.
  • Older adults with diabetes should be aware of an increased risk of gum disease. This can lead to pain, frequent bad breath, chewing difficulties and even loss of teeth.
Oral cancer
  • Oral cancer most often occurs in people over age 40 and affects more than twice as many men as women.
  • Tobacco, alcohol use (or both), or infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV), are leading causes of oral cancer.

Periodontal (gum) disease
  • Periodontal disease is an infection of the tissues that hold your teeth in place.
  • Poor brushing and flossing habits are typical causes.
Tooth loss
  • Tooth loss occurs due to severe dental caries (cavities) and gum disease.
  • Poor hygiene and tobacco use are major risk factors.

Denture-related problems
  • The most common cause of trouble with dentures is inflammation of gums (stomatitis), which can cause pain and discomfort.
  • Poor denture hygiene can lead to fungal infection
  • Ill-fitting dentures can cause gum ulcers.

How to prevent oral health problems

Caring for your natural teeth:

  • Brush teeth twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss your teeth daily.
  • Eat a healthy diet that limits sugary beverages and snacks.
  • Schedule checkups and cleaning with your dental clinic as recommended by your dentist.

Caring for your dentures:

  • Clean your dentures with a brush after meals.
  • Use commercial denture cleanser for overnight soaking.
  • If you have pain or discomfort, see your dentist.
  • Visit your dentist every 6 months for a denture checkup.
Dementia and oral care:
  • Loss of appetite may be a sign of mouth pain or ill-fitting dentures.
  • It is better to use simple, short instructions when caring for a person with dementia.
  • Use "watch me" or "hand-on-hand" techniques. Postpone oral care if the person seems distressed.
  • Twice-daily brushing is recommended. A soft or long-angled brush is better than a standard one.
  • Regular flossing is recommended. An interdental brush (such as Proxabrush) is a good alternative for cleaning between teeth.
  • Find a dentist who has experience with treating people with dementia. You might ask your own dentist for recommendations, or contact the local branch of the Alzheimer's Association.
  • If the person has dentures, daily denture-brushing care with night soaking is recommended.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist

  • Review your medication list with your doctor or pharmacist, as some medicines may cause side effects like dry mouth. Examples are diphenhydramine (Benadryl), high blood pressure medications, antidepressants and urinary incontinence medications.



Information prepared by Amr Alkasir, MD, and Eman Saifeldein, BDS
Updated November 2021