PUBLISHED: 4:24 PM on Tuesday, August 8, 2006
Keeping your mouth healthy as you age
The eyes may be the window to the soul, but the mouth mirrors a person's health throughout life and into old age.

Strategies for maintaining healthy teeth and gums - such as good oral hygiene, fluoride in drinking water and toothpaste, and regular professional care - are just as important for older adults as for children.

Indeed, there is more at stake with oral health than just having an attractive smile and cavity-free teeth. Oral diseases and conditions can affect other aspects of an individual's general health status, and even impact emotional and psychological well-being.

"All adults need to know more about what they can do to maintain their oral health," says Barbara Gooch, DMD, MPH, a dental officer in the Division of Oral Health within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. "Older adults, along with caregivers, healthcare providers and policy makers, should be aware of effective ways to prevent and control oral diseases."

Many people erroneously believe that losing teeth is an inevitable part of aging and that there is nothing they can do about it. While in the 1950s fewer than 50 percent of older adults retained their teeth, now more than 70 percent keep their teeth into old age.

Teeth are lost due to tooth decay and gum disease, not aging alone, and there is plenty we can do to keep our mouths healthy.

By the time people are in their 60s and older, they generally know the importance of brushing, flossing, and regular dental checkups.

Certain medications can impair the production of saliva, which is needed to lubricate the mouth and gums, reduce bacterial growth, and provide minerals to "heal" tooth surfaces where tooth decay is just beginning.

• To relieve the symptoms of dry mouth and prevent oral problems, dentists recommend drinking extra water and reducing intake of sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. They may also suggest purchasing artificial saliva, available at most drug stores, or sugar-free hard candy.

• To prevent tooth decay, use of additional preventive measures, such as fluoride rinses and gels and more frequent visits to the dental office are often encouraged. Finally, there are medications that can help the salivary glands work better.

• The use of fluoride products is important, particularly brushing with fluoride toothpaste and drinking fluoridated water, but mouth rinses, varnishes, or supplements may also be recommended. Fluoride is not just for kids, as it protects against tooth decay at all ages.

• Older adults also should avoid smoking or other tobacco products, use alcohol only in moderation, and be conscious of maintaining a nutritious diet even if they have lost teeth and have a more difficult time chewing fresh fruit and vegetables.

To learn more about oral health visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site at