Community Blog

Diligence in Dental Hygiene Deters Heart Disease in Seniors

By Debbie Humphrey

It’s never easy to lose a loved one, especially when you know something as basic as proper dental hygiene may have prevented their illness or fatal health condition in the first place.

The facts are confirmed. There is a direct link between your heart and your gums where bacteria can spread causing unimaginable cardiac damage. Not only does gum disease impact seniors’ oral health, it also directly affects heart health and cardiovascular function.

A recent story reported on Fox News featured a 41 year-old firefighter who failed to seek the professional help of a dentist when a popcorn kernel became lodged between his teeth and gums. He used sharp metal objects over several days to remove the rogue kernel, which inflicted serious damage to his gums. Within weeks, the man became very ill and eventually, underwent open heart surgery to repair severely damaged heart valves from bacteria generated from the gum wounds. He has since made the decision to never eat popcorn again!

The firefighter and his wife, Helen, learned the hard way, “Any sign of a toothache, bleeding gums, an abscess — get it checked out," Helen advised. “Your gums are a bacterial highway to your heart.”

Partials, dentures, implants, I’ve seen them all. In my many years as a caregiver, helping seniors with dental hygiene has always been one of the most important responsibilities we encounter.

If you think about it, when seniors were young, dental floss had not been conceived, there were not supermarket shelves stacked with boxes of fluoride toothpaste, and dentists were fewer and farther between. What resulted was a generation of aging men and women with tooth decay and loss, along with periodontal issues requiring extractions, specialized treatment, and the application of prosthetic devices.

Dental hygiene is extremely important for all ages, but it is a necessity for seniors. I was fascinated to learn about one study that concluded problems in the mouth like periodontal (gum) disease, was as strong an indicator of heart disease as cholesterol levels!  In fact, the American Academy of Periodontology states that people with periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease or heart disease, than those who do not suffer with oral conditions.

Pneumonia is another dangerous possibility when dental hygiene is not taken seriously. When bacteria grow in the mouth and gums, or are inhaled through the mouth to the lungs, pneumonia can set-in. By maintaining proper oral health, this is much less likely to happen.

Moreover, a severe case of gum disease known as periodontitis prevents the body from using insulin, which has a direct correlation to diabetes. Conversely, high blood sugar levels, a characteristic of diabetes, can lead to gum infections, as well.

With all of that said, best practices in oral hygiene, as well as professional visits with a dentist, are typically more challenging with seniors for a variety of reasons. Complicating factors include multiple medications, cognitive changes and physical disabilities and impairments which can limit their ability to care for their teeth or dentures or see a dentist when needed. For these seniors, it is recommended a trusted family member, friend or professional caregiver lend a helping hand.

One common ailment older adults experience when taking multiple medications is dry mouth, or Xerostomia. This condition affects 30% of seniors over the age of 65, and 40% of elderly patients over the age of 80. It is a side-effect to many medications, and also occurs in seniors with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Making sure a senior is sipping tap water throughout the day, along with using oral rinse applications, will help this condition.

Arthritis is another problem for seniors in terms of dental hygiene. Gripping and keeping hold of a toothbrush or attempting to floss natural teeth are basically impossible for those with arthritis in their hands. With osteoporosis and arthritic joints in the spine, hips, knees and legs, it is often difficult to stand for any length of time to perform oral hygiene tasks.

Moreover, seniors suffering with dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other cognitive challenges typically forget to brush their teeth, or remove and soak their dentures, without the assistance of a family member, friend, or caregiver.

One of my colleagues shared that her “little lady with dementia” had to have all of her teeth removed as they began breaking-off due to rampant decay caused by her sustained “sweet tooth” and the hard candies she chain-sucked. Before the woman’s demented decline, she had been diligent about maintaining her oral hygiene by brushing and flossing multiple times per day. Unfortunately, the 80 year-old woman recently passed away following a stroke that may not have occurred if she had been able to maintain her dental hygiene routine.

That said, just because teeth have been removed and prosthetics are in place, doesn’t mean an adult is out of the woods when it comes to dental concerns. Dentures and partials that are loose-fitting can cause issues with oral health, too. The fungus Candida Albicans can spread between the gums and dentures with a lack of oral hygiene in seniors. This can cause inflammation in the gums, which is very uncomfortable and extremely unhealthy. Plus, loose partials or dentures make it more difficult to consume foods and beverages and may result in sores developing in the mouth.

The American Dental Association recommends seniors:

  • Brush twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste
  • Use an electric toothbrush for better cleaning
  • Floss or use another inter-dental cleaning device to remove food from between teeth
  • Rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash at least once/day
  • Clean full or partial dentures daily by removing them at night, soaking in a cleansing solution overnight, and replacing them in the morning, using denture adhesive as needed.
  • Drink tap water since it most likely contains fluoride to help prevent tooth decay
  • Quit smoking and dipping tobacco, because tobacco use increases the risk of gum disease, tooth decay and tooth loss
  • Visit the dentist on a regular basis (every six months) for a complete dental check-up, oral exam, and cleaning
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes dairy and high-fiber foods

If you know a senior who would benefit from in-home care and assistance with personal and oral hygiene, transportation assistance to/from the dentist, or meal preparation for a healthier diet, I am happy to offer a FREE in-home consultation to discuss specific needs and ways our caregivers can lend a hand. Home Helpers® is comprised of compassionate caregivers who are highly-skilled at providing quality in-home care and support for seniors with chronic conditions such as gum disease, COPD, congestive heart failure, heart disease, diabetes, cerebral vascular diseases, Alzheimer’s, dementia and more.

We, at Home Helpers® Clearwater, are honored to have received the Home Care Pulse – Best of Home Care® Provider of Choice Award for 2017, 2018, 2019 & 2020. We proudly serve male and female seniors in Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Holiday, New Port Richey, Trinity, Port Richey, Hudson and surrounding areas. Home Helpers®…we are Making Life Easier℠  727.942.2539

Sources:

Fox News

American Dental Association