Dental health and overall nutrition become increasingly intertwined as we age. While many older adults may not realize it, there is a hidden link between these two crucial aspects of health. Poor dental health can significantly impact nutrition, leading to malnourishment and other health problems.
Conversely, a healthy diet can help maintain good oral health, promoting healthy teeth and gums. In this article, we will explore the connection between dental health and overall nutrition in older adults and provide tips on maintaining both.
The Link Between Dental Health and Nutrition
To maintain good health, the body requires daily nourishment through carbohydrates, proteins, and minerals. The relationships between oral health issues, dietary habits, nutritional status, and general health are complex and interconnected. Insufficient nutrition, including dental cavities, gum disease, oral mucosa disorders, and infectious diseases, can impact oral health.
Oral health problems can affect food choices, leading to inadequate nutrient intake and a suboptimal nutritional status. This can increase the risk of chronic systemic diseases. Addressing oral health and nutrition issues is crucial to improving overall health and quality of life.
Nutrition is a significant modifiable factor that can significantly affect oral health. Poor nutritional status can adversely affect oral health, while compromised oral health can negatively impact dietary intake, leading to malnutrition. Therefore, oral health plays a vital role in maintaining good nutrition.
Common Dental Health Problems in Older Adults
Older adults are at especially high risk for mouth and tooth infections and the complications that can come with these problems. Losing teeth, mainly caused by infection, not only leads to changes in your appearance but may also make it harder to chew certain foods. That can make it harder to receive the nourishment you need to function.
Oral health problems in older adults include the following:
- Untreated tooth decay. Almost all adults 65 years or older (96%) have experienced a cavity, and approximately one in five have untreated tooth decay.
- Gum disease. Gum disease is prevalent among older adults, with about two in three (68%) suffering from this condition.
- Tooth loss. Tooth loss affects nearly one in five adults aged 65 or older, with complete tooth loss being twice as common among those aged 75 and older (26%) compared to those aged 65-74 (13%). Individuals with missing teeth or dentures prefer soft, easy-to-chew foods, which can negatively affect their nutrition, as they may not consume enough fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Oral cancer. Oral cancer is predominantly diagnosed in older adults, with the median age at diagnosis being 62 years.
- Chronic disease. Those with chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more susceptible to gum disease, but they may not receive the necessary dental care. Most older Americans take prescription and over-the-counter drugs, many of which can cause dry mouth. Reduced saliva flow can increase the risk of cavities.
Maintaining good oral hygiene is the most important thing you can do to prevent infections. All older adults should be careful about their oral health. Remember that good dental hygiene is an important part of healthy aging. There is no substitute for brushing your teeth after each meal and daily flossing.
Maintaining Dental Health: Tips For Older Adults
Maintaining good oral hygiene as you age can prevent various issues, such as tooth decay, toothaches, and tooth loss while making it easier to enjoy food. If you have certain health conditions or are taking medication that may affect your oral health, paying extra attention to your teeth and gums is crucial.
Here are some dental care tips from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion to guide you in keeping your oral health in its optimum state.
1. Brush and floss your teeth every day.
It’s important to brush and floss your teeth regularly to eliminate dental plaque, a sticky bacterial film that can lead to gum disease and tooth decay.
Brushing your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, preferably after breakfast and before bedtime, is recommended. Additionally, flossing your teeth on a daily basis is crucial. If you struggle with flossing, you can inquire about using an alternative tool, such as a special brush or pick from your dentist.
2. Pay attention to changes in your mouth
As you age, your likelihood of developing oral cancer increases. Therefore, it’s crucial to be aware of any alterations in your mouth and seek medical attention if necessary. If you experience any of the following symptoms for more than two weeks, it’s recommended to see a doctor or dentist:
- An uncomfortable or painful spot in your throat, lip, or mouth
- A thick area or lump in your throat, lip, or mouth
- A white or red patch in your mouth
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving your jaw or tongue
- Numbness in your mouth or tongue
- Jaw swelling
- Ear pain without hearing loss
3. Go to your dentist regularly.
It is recommended to schedule routine dental checkups and cleanings with your dentist. The frequency of these visits differs from person to person, and your dentist can advise you on how often you should come in during your next appointment.
It’s important to note that Medicare typically does not cover most dental care, so it may be beneficial to obtain private dental insurance. You may find low-cost dental healthcare here.
4. Consult with your doctor about dry mouth.
If you experience dry mouth, which is the condition of having insufficient saliva to keep your mouth moist, you may encounter difficulties with eating, swallowing, or speaking, as well as an increased risk of tooth decay or infection.
A dry mouth can be a side effect of certain medications, a consequence of certain health issues like diabetes, or a result of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation. You should speak with your doctor or dentist to address dry mouth and inquire about potential solutions.
5. Build healthy habits.
Developing healthy habits is crucial for maintaining good oral health and overall well-being. Consuming a healthy diet and reducing the intake of sugary foods and beverages can aid in preventing tooth decay.
It’s also important to refrain from smoking or using tobacco products, as they increase the risk of oral cancer and gum disease. If you are a smoker, seeking help from resources such as 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) can be beneficial.
If you consume alcohol, it’s recommended to limit your intake to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Heavy drinking can heighten the risk of oral cancer.
Eating Tips For Older Adults With Dental Concerns
Common dental issues among older adults, like tooth decay, tooth loss, or gum disease, can affect their food intake and, consequently, their nourishment.
Hence it’s important that they learn how to get the nourishment that they need despite any dental comforts.
Below are some useful tips to try if you or your loved one experiences mouth sores, tender gums, or other oral problems.
1. If you have a sore mouth or throat;
Try to opt for soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow, such as;
- Soft fruits such as bananas and applesauce
- Nectars such as peach, pear, and apricot
- Cottage cheese and yogurt
- Soft pasta such as mashed potatoes and noodles
- Soft desserts such as custards, puddings, and gelatin
- Scrambled eggs
- Cooked cereals like oatmeal
- Pureed or mashed vegetables such as peas and carrots
- Pureed meats
It’s advisable to avoid foods and liquids that can irritate your mouth, such as citrus fruits or juice, tomato-based products, spicy or salty foods, and rough, coarse, or dry foods like raw vegetables, granola, toast, crackers, etc. Additionally, mouthwashes containing alcohol should be avoided.
Here are some other suggestions for easier eating:
- Cook foods until they are soft and tender.
- Cut foods into small pieces.
- Puree food in a blender or food processor.
- Mix food with butter, margarine, thin gravy, or sauce to make swallowing easier.
- Use a straw to drink liquids.
- Use a smaller spoon, like one meant for babies.
- Eat foods that are cold or at room temperature to avoid irritation in a sensitive mouth and throat caused by hot foods.
- Drinking warm bouillon or salty broth can help alleviate throat pain.
- Sucking on ice chips can also provide relief.
- If you have difficulty swallowing, adjusting the position of your head by tilting it back or forward may help.
- Consult your dentist for special products that can clean your teeth if your teeth and gums are sore.
- Rinse your mouth frequently with water to eliminate food particles and bacteria and encourage healing.
- Consult your doctor about anesthetic lozenges and sprays that can numb your mouth and throat long enough for you to consume meals.
2. If you have a dry mouth;
Here are some tips to manage dry mouth:
- To ease swallowing and improve speech, take a sip of water every few minutes. Consider carrying a water bottle with you for convenience.
- Consuming very sweet or tart foods and beverages like lemonade can stimulate the production of saliva, but avoid this if it irritates a tender mouth or sore throat.
- Sucking on hard candy or popsicles, chewing gum, or eating soft and pureed foods can also increase saliva production.
- Keep your lips moist with lip salves, and moisten your food with sauces, gravies, or dressings to facilitate swallowing.
- If your dry mouth condition is severe, consult your doctor or dentist about artificial saliva products that can moisturize, protect, and coat your mouth and throat.
3. If your sense of taste and smell changes;
Here are some tips for enhancing the flavor and enjoyment of food:
- Select and prepare foods that appeal to your senses, such as those that look and smell good to you.
- If you find that red meat has an odd taste or smell, consider trying other protein sources like chicken, turkey, eggs, dairy, or mild fish.
- Enhance the flavor of meat, chicken, or fish by marinating them in sweet fruit juices, sweet wine, Italian dressing, or sweet-and-sour sauce.
- Use small amounts of flavorful seasonings like basil, oregano, or rosemary to add taste.
- Experiment with tart foods like oranges or lemonade, which may have stronger flavors. However, be cautious with tart or citrus foods if you have a sore mouth or throat, as they might cause discomfort.
- If smells are bothersome, try serving food at room temperature, using a kitchen fan, covering food while cooking, or cooking outdoors in good weather.
- To add flavor to vegetables, try using bacon, ham, or onion.
- Consider visiting your dentist to rule out any dental problems that may affect your sense of taste or smell.
- Consult your dentist or doctor regarding special mouthwashes and proper mouth care.
Foods Older Adults Should Eat To Help Protect Their Teeth
The foods that older adults consume can also directly impact the health of their teeth and gums, and it is essential to keep their teeth in good condition.
Dental issues and tooth loss can exacerbate other health problems and increase the risk of life-threatening infections for older adults.
So here are a few specific foods recommended by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) that should help your loved one work into their regular routine to have a healthier smile.
1. Tap water
Water should be the primary choice of beverage due to its cleansing properties that wash away food and acids that cause tooth decay and erosion. It is advisable to avoid bottled water as most do not contain fluoride.
However, it is important to exercise caution when consuming sugary drinks like sodas, sports drinks, and fruit juices. These drinks contain high amounts of sugar that can fuel the growth of harmful bacteria in the mouth, leading to tooth enamel decay.
Additionally, the acidity in these drinks can also cause harm to the teeth, and the caffeine content can cause dryness of the mouth.
Milk, cheese, and yogurt are excellent sources of calcium and phosphates, which can replenish minerals lost from your teeth due to other types of foods.
Additionally, they promote the rebuilding of tooth enamel and counteract the harmful effects of acids present in other foods. Cheese is particularly beneficial in this regard as it contains casein, a protein that helps to stabilize and repair tooth enamel.
However, when it comes to yogurt, caution is advised, especially in children, as it has been linked to an increased risk of tooth decay. This is likely due to the consumption of high-sugar yogurts by children.
Therefore, it is recommended to opt for brands that contain 10 grams of sugar or less per serving.
3. Fruits and veggies
All types of fruits and vegetables are good for oral health due to their high water content, which helps to wash away harmful substances and debris in the mouth, and their fiber content, which helps to regulate the sugar levels and clean the teeth.
Foods that are crunchy and firm, such as carrots and celery, are particularly beneficial as they encourage the production of saliva, which helps to remove food particles and bacteria.
However, it is important to exercise caution when consuming acidic fruits and vegetables such as oranges, grapefruits, and tomatoes, as they can gradually wear away the tooth enamel and increase the risk of tooth decay.
Additionally, sticky dried fruits like raisins and prunes can be harmful to teeth, so it is recommended to rinse with water immediately after consuming them and to brush and floss carefully.
4. Lean proteins
Phosphorus, which is abundant in poultry, fish, eggs, and lean beef, is a mineral that plays a vital role in protecting and rebuilding tooth enamel, thus strengthening your teeth.
Protein is also important for repairing gum tissue and the mucosal lining of the mouth, which tend to deteriorate with age. However, this could be a challenge for older adults, as almost 50% of them already have insufficient protein intake.
It is important to note that processed meats should be consumed with caution. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in January showed that older adults who consume a diet high in saturated fats, including processed meat, are at a higher risk of oral health problems like tooth loss, dry mouth, and gum disease.
5. Sugarless gum
It’s a serious saliva maker, which can help with remineralization. Why? The increased flow adds more calcium and phosphate to your saliva, which helps strengthen tooth enamel, Mills says.
Try to chew sugarless gum for 20 minutes after every meal, and look for one that has the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance.
But avoid hard candies. They’re full of sugar, which can be harmful to your teeth. They can also trigger a dental emergency, such as a broken or chipped tooth.
They contain protein and the amino acid arginine, which has been shown to help reduce the risk of cavities. They are actually likely to get stuck and collect in the crevices of your teeth, which is a good thing as the good bacteria in your mouth love to feed on them.
Nuts also require a lot of chewing, which increases saliva production and thus reduces your risk for tooth decay.
Be cautious with crunchy snacks. It might seem satisfying to bite down on items like potato chips, but they’re loaded with starch, which tends to get trapped in your teeth.
Since they also break down into sugars almost immediately once they come into contact with your saliva, they’re a recipe for disaster for your choppers.
7. Green tea
It’s rich in antioxidants such as catechin, which may reduce your risk of developing gum disease.
One study published in the Journal of Periodontology analyzed gum health in almost 1,000 men and found that regular drinkers of green tea had better gum health than those who did not consume the tea.
Avoid coffee and black teas, on the other hand. Their caffeine can dry out your mouth, and they can also stain your teeth if you drink cup after cup. To counter their ill effects, wash them down with water and minimize the sugary add-ons.
It is essential for older adults to understand the hidden link between dental health and overall nutrition. By taking steps to improve oral hygiene and maintain a healthy diet, older adults can significantly improve their overall health and well-being.
Regular dental checkups and consultations with a registered dietitian can help older adults develop a personalized plan to address their unique needs. By prioritizing both dental health and nutrition, older adults can enjoy a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life.
If you want to make sure your overall nutrition is at its best state, start making changes and building healthy habits now. To guide you on your journey, you may also visit our Senior Diet and Nutrition 101: A Senior’s Guide To Nutritious Life.