Good oral health is a strong indicator of good overall health in older adults. It makes sense that nutritional intake is better when a person has all or most of their teeth. Poor oral health, on the other hand, is negatively linked to obesity, sleep apnea, poorer chronic disease management, higher LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels, malnutrition, low self esteem, and other physiological problems.
A 2011 study assessed geriatric oral health of 386 seniors, and compared physical factors including body mass index, handgrip strength, and one-leg standing time with eyes open – all considered strong indicators of general health status among older adults. They found that oral health scores “are significantly associated with” muscle strength in the elderly, which in turn, affects their activities of daily living.
The good news is that more Americans are keeping their teeth into old age. The bad news is that many still face challenges obtaining oral health care.
Medicare, the nation’s health care program for seniors does not cover routine care. In many states, Medicaid dental benefits for poor adults are also extremely limited. Only a minority have private dental benefits. Overall, roughly 70 percent of Americans age 65 and older have no dental coverage of any kind.
While overall oral health has improved for seniors in recent decades, the lack of access to care has serious implications for millions of elders, particularly those who are poor or living in isolated places or institutional settings.
AHCJ topic leaders Mary Otto (oral health) and Liz Seegert (aging) teamed up to compile a tip sheet about oral health in seniors that explains possible links between periodontal disease, diabetes and other conditions. They also suggest some story ideas for reporters to pursue about access to care, programs in your community, caregivers and medical providers and more.