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Oral Health and Aging

4 Myths About Oral Health and Aging

Is dry mouth a natural part of the aging process? Is tooth decay just kid stuff? Separate fact from fiction. Having the right information can help you keep your mouth healthy for a lifetime. Here are four myths about oral health and facts to set them straight from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).

Tooth Decay


Only school kids get cavities.


Tooth decay can develop at any age.

Tooth decay is not just a problem for children. It can happen as long as you have natural teeth. Dental plaque—a sticky film of bacteria—can build up on teeth. Plaque produces acids that, over time, eat away at the tooth’s hard outer surface and create a cavity. Even teeth that already have fillings are at risk. Plaque can build up underneath a chipped filling and cause new decay.

If your gums pull away from the teeth, the exposed tooth roots are also vulnerable to decay.

Gum Disesase


Gum disease is just a part of growing older.


You can prevent gum disease—it does not have to be a part of getting older.

Gum (periodontal) disease is a chronic infection of the gums and surrounding tissues that hold teeth in place. Gum disease develops when plaque is allowed to build up along and under the gum line.

The two forms of gum disease are:

  • Gingivitis, a mild form that is reversible with good oral hygiene. In gingivitis, the gums become red, swollen, and can bleed easily.
  • Periodontitis, a more severe form that can damage the soft tissues and bone that support teeth. In periodontitis, gums pull away from the teeth and form spaces (called "pockets"). If not treated, the bones, gums, and tissue that support the teeth are destroyed. The teeth may eventually become loose and have to be removed.

Dry Mouth


Dry mouth is a natural part of the aging process. You just have to learn to live with it.


Dry mouth is not a part of the aging process itself; it’s important to find the cause of dry mouth so you can get relief.

Dry mouth is the condition of not having enough saliva, or spit, to keep the mouth wet. Without enough saliva, chewing, eating, swallowing, and even talking can be difficult. Dry mouth also increases the risk for tooth decay because saliva helps keep harmful germs that cause tooth decay and other oral infections in check. Saliva also contains minerals (calcium and phosphate) that can help reverse early decay.

It’s important to know that dry mouth is not part of the aging process itself. However, many older adults take medications that can dry out the mouth. Older adults are also more likely to have certain conditions that can lead to oral dryness.

Here are some causes of dry mouth:

  • Side effects of medicines.
  • Diseases such as Sjögren's syndrome and HIV/AIDS.
  • Radiation therapy or chemotherapy for cancer.
  • Nerve damage. Injury or surgery to the head or neck can damage the nerves that tell salivary glands to make saliva.

If you think you have dry mouth, see a dentist or physician. He or she can try to determine what is causing your dry mouth and what treatments might be helpful.

Oral (Mouth) Cancer


If you don’t use chewing tobacco, you don’t need to worry about oral cancer.


It’s not just smokeless tobacco (“dip” and “chew”) that can increase your chances of getting oral cancer.

Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarette smoking, puts you at risk. Heavy alcohol use also increases your chances of developing the disease. The likelihood of oral cancer increases with age. Most people with these cancers are older than 55 when the cancer is found. Also, recent research has found that infection with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) has been linked to a subset of oral cancers. It’s important to catch oral cancer early, because treatment works best before the disease has spread.

If you have any of the following symptoms for more than two weeks, be sure to see a dentist or physician:

  • A sore, irritation, lump, or thick patch in the mouth, lip, or throat
  • A white or red patch in the mouth
  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness in the tongue or other areas of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Pain in one ear without hearing loss

Most often, these symptoms do not mean cancer. An infection or other problem can cause the same symptoms. But it’s important to get them checked out.


Here are some things you can do to keep your mouth healthy:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss regularly to remove plaque from between teeth. Or use a device such as a special brush or wooden or plastic pick recommended by a dental professional.
  • Visit the dentist regularly for a checkup and professional cleaning.
  • Don’t smoke or use chewing tobacco or snuff.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Limit sugar and eat a well-balanced diet.
Read More "Oral Health and Aging" Articles

Oral Health and Aging / 4 Myths About Oral Health and Aging / NIH Research Addresses Aging Issues and Disparities in Oral Health

Summer 2016 Issue: Volume 11 Number 2 Page 15-16