Is Tooth Loss Due To Age or Disease?
As a result of ongoing advances the field of dentistry, people are retaining their teeth well into their 7th, 8th or maybe even their 9th decade of life! Tooth loss was once perceived to be a function of aging. Most clinicians have heard patients say, “Well, I am 70 years old, so I am lucky to have as many teeth as I do,” or, “My mother lost all of her teeth by the time she was 50. I know I am going to be the same way and will need dentures.” Research has proven that people do not lose teeth because they are old. People lose teeth due to periodontal disease, which is secondary to poor home care and/or lack of professional intervention.
The dental profession has been attempting to shake off this perception among the general population. Through constant education, especially within the hygiene department, this perception can be put to bed (so to speak). While hygienists treat baby boomers, they should be using appointment times to inform them that they do not have to fall victim to being edentulous. This generation watched their parents deal with “pyorrhea,” tooth extractions and full upper and lower prosthetics placements. This was most often due to lack of dental care. People were not in tune with dental health and there was not money available to be spent on dental treatment unless emergency treatment was needed; typically emergency treatment came in the form of an extraction.
The “Baby Boomer” generation (born between the years 1946 and 1964, depending on what source is being consulted) has been fortunate to have experienced a different kind of dentistry. They have received more frequent dental care than their parents and are more knowledgeable than their parents about dental health. Although this is true, there is still work to be done educating this group. They need to be taught about the connections between oral and systemic health, how routine preventive care and adequate home care can prevent periodontal disease/tooth loss and that keeping their teeth for life will improve their quality of life.
Even though the dental profession is well aware of the association between oral and systemic health, it is not so well-known among the general population. It is the responsibility of the hygienist to provide education to patients of this age group on this topic. They need to know that maintaining a healthy mouth can possibly ward off heart attacks or stroke, assist in management of blood glucose levels, potentially keep away some forms of cancer and possibly help manage arthritis. These are all ailments that begin to concern aging patients. How wonderful is it that the dental team can help keep patients totally healthy?
The number one cause of adult tooth loss is not decay—it is periodontal disease. This information should be shared with aging patients. They need to be aware that continued professional cleaning appointments, accompanied by good home care, will help them preserve their smiles for a lifetime. Likewise, they need to know if they are already showing signs of periodontal disease; the dental team can help them rectify the situation through periodontal therapy.
There are studies that correlate quality of life with the number of natural teeth a person has. They suggest that once a person has fewer than 28 natural teeth, the quality of life declines with each tooth loss. This is understandable if the ability to eat is considered. Being able to chew food is directly related to how many teeth are present. Chewing food correctly directly affects digestion. Poor nutrition from poor digestion can lead to a low quality of life.
Consider as well the issue of self-esteem. If a person has lost anterior teeth, he/she is less likely to smile and converse with others. Research shows that if a people cannot chew well and eat as fast as others at the table they become embarrassed and will tend to eat alone more often. These two situations can lead to isolation. Isolated people have a lower quality of life than their more social counterparts.
Some clinicians feel that an older patient cannot or does not want to be taught this information. In fact, many elders who are fortunate enough to be exposed to hygienists who take the time to teach them become the most compliant and reliable patients. Boomers often have more discretionary income, which results in higher treatment acceptance, and they may have more job flexibility, which allows them to make it to appointments easily. The desire for a better quality of life in the later years of this generation can make a huge impact on the productivity of a hygiene department that takes advantage of the opportunity!
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