By Mark A. Penshorn, DDS
One of the trends we are noticing in the dental field is a resurgence of tooth decay in patients age 65 and older. This is happening as more people are keeping their natural teeth longer and living longer. Many of these patients have taken really good care of their teeth, and may have had a lot of dental work or very little. But now these same patients are getting a bunch of cavities after not having had them in their younger years.
The primary cause of this problem is “dry mouth syndrome,” more technically called “xerostomia” which means lack of saliva. Saliva is the body’s natural defense against cavity-causing-bacteria in the mouth, and acids in foods and beverages. When these bacteria and acids get on the teeth they remove the calcium and phosphates that protect the surface of the teeth. In a healthy mouth, saliva restores those minerals in 20-30 minutes. In a dry mouth, it can take 6-7 hours! This gives the bacteria, acids and sugars way too much time to damage the surface of the tooth.
Most cases of dry mouth syndrome are the result of medication. Most heart medications, most allergy medications, many anti-anxiety and anti-depressants can all be culprits in this process.
If you are noticing that your mouth is chronically dry, that you don’t have enough saliva, you have probably already lost 50% of your salivary flow. I suggest these steps toward solution:
*Oral hygiene becomes exponentially important. Daily flossing and brushing twice a day is mandatory to remove bacteria, sugars and acids in a timely manner.
*Consult with your physician about adjusting your medications. Sometimes this can be done easily without compromising the health benefit that you are trying to achieve with these meds.
*In severe cases of dry mouth, you should avoid sugars in all forms.
*Use a home treatment fluoride tray custom-fitted by your dentist to strengthen your teeth against this ongoing problem. This is easy to handle at home and not very expensive.
*Resist wetting your mouth by sucking on hard candy. This makes your dental situation worse. Chewing totally sugarless gum (sweetened with xylotol, manatol or sobatol) can stimulate saliva production without harming the teeth.
*Consult your dentist promptly if these symptoms sound familiar so that you can work together to create a plan that protects your health and teeth in a proactive manner.