For people over the age of 50, taking care of eyes and teeth is essential to overall wellbeing and a healthy future
It’s a fact of life that our health changes as we age, even if we can’t see it. Ironically, according to a 2014 study by the American Optometric Association, nearly eight out of ten adults age 55 years or older have trouble seeing, period.
With so many aging adults reporting some sort of vision loss, it should be clear that taking care of your eyes as you age is critical. So, too, should be taking care of your teeth: yet approximately 100 million Americans fail to see a dentist each year.
While ailments like cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s get the most attention, failure to pay attention to your eyes or teeth as you age can lead to progressive and painful health problems, or even blindness.
“There are many visual challenges that occur after 50,” says Dr. Andrea Thau, Vice President of the American Optometric Association and an Associate Clinical Professor at the State University of New York. “Vision changes during this time often necessitate new eyeglass prescriptions. Many patients will require special refractive corrections for reading and computers. From an eye health standpoint, there is an increase in the incidence of ocular diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration.”
Cataracts are a clouding of the lens which occurs naturally in all people, says Dr. Anne Sumers, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The formation of the cataract can be accelerated by taking steroids as eye drops or orally (used for asthma and auto-immune diseases), and by sun exposure. Sunglasses and a broad brimmed hat will slow but not prevent cataract formation. Cataracts can be surgically removed, which can help restore vision.
The second leading cause of blindness, Glaucoma is a disease in which damage to the optic nerve leads to progressive, irreversible vision loss. Maintaining good health and exercising can help improve blood flow to the optic nerve. “Glaucoma can be treated to prevent further vision loss but previous loss cannot be reversed,” Thau says. “Therefore it is critical that patients undergo annual eye examinations to look for previously undetected glaucoma. Patients with glaucoma need to follow their treatment regimen assiduously and need to receive regular optometric care to ensure that the treatment is managing the disease appropriately.”
Macular degeneration, or aging of the eye’s macula, is accelerated by smoking and poor nutrition, Sumer says. “Stopping smoking and taking AREDS vitamins (such as Preservision or Ocuvite) can help stabilize but not cure acular degeneration,” Sumer says. Adds Thau: “Macular degeneration can be best prevented by wearing good quality sunglasses that block UVA and UVB rays. Eating food rich in lutein and zeaxanthin such as spinach and kale can improve macular pigment.”
“There’s no one size fits all recommendation for regular dental checkups, but it’s very important to go as often as your dentist recommends,” says American Dental Association Consumer Advisor spokesperson Dr. Sally Cram. “As you age, the nerves inside your teeth become smaller and less sensitive. By the time you feel cavity pain, it may be too late and you may lose your tooth. There are also more serious conditions that your dentist will look for, like oral cancer and gum disease, which do not always cause pain until the advanced stages of the disease. By then, it’s more difficult and costly to treat.”
“As we age, there is natural recession of the gum line,” says Dr. Robert E. Varner, president of the American Association of Orthodontists. “Also, there is a tendency for adults to have more gum disease (periodontal disease) as they age – particularly smokers. It is a main reason why dental checkups are so important since periodontal disease is typically painless, yet can result in the loss of bone supporting the teeth.”
When bone is lost, teeth can be lost, too – even healthy teeth.
“Loss of teeth in the extreme can mean dentures (false teeth) that replace all of the teeth,” Varner says. “Most adults have a significant loss of function when eating with dentures and eventually it can become very difficult to eat as the dental bone goes away over time, and the denture no longer fits.”
Older adults often experience issues with dry mouth due to increased medication usage, Cram says.
“Dry mouth is a side-effect in more than 500 medications, including those for allergies or asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pain, anxiety or depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases,” Cram explains. “Dry mouth can lead to increased cavities which will require more extensive dental work to repair teeth. This is just one reason why it’s so important to tell your dentist about any medications that you’re taking so he or she can make recommendations that will help to manage any potential issues with dry mouth.”
When you go to your dentist for a check-up, Cram recommends that you bring the following information:
• List of medications, including vitamins, herbal remedies, and over-the-counter medications
• List of medical conditions, allergies
• Information and phone numbers of all health care providers, doctors, and your previous dentist
• Information about your emergency contacts, someone who can help make decisions on your behalf in the case of a medical emergency
• Dental insurance or Medicaid cards
• Your dentures or partials, even if you don’t wear them
“As we get older, there is more of a chance of developing periodontal disease (gum disease) so some adults benefit from seeing a Periodontist in addition to their dentist. Of course, there are many adults over 50 that can still benefit from orthodontic treatment,” says Varner.
In particular, Cram recommends that older adults practice the following care of their teeth:
• Brush your teeth twice a day with a soft-bristled brush. The size and shape of your brush should fit your mouth allowing you to reach all areas easily.
• Replace your toothbrush every three or four months, or sooner if the bristles are frayed. A worn toothbrush won’t be able to clean teeth well so make sure to replace it regularly.
• Floss daily.
• If dexterity is an issue due to arthritis or other causes, use an electric toothbrush twice daily, floss pick or a water irrigator once a day.
• Eat a balanced diet – the foods you eat and drink have a direct impact on your teeth.
• Visit your dentist regularly so he or she can monitor and treat any problematic conditions or concerns within your mouth.
“See your dentist twice a year to have a checkup and your teeth cleaned, and see an AAO member orthodontist to have your teeth straightened so you can have a healthy, beautiful smile,” adds Varner. Ultimately, he says, “with good home care, there is little reason a person cannot keep their teeth a life time.”