For the Oral Health of Older Adults, It’s All in the Family

What happens to our teeth as we age? We used to settle on the assumption that losing most or all of our permanent teeth was an inevitable part of the aging process. But not anymore. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1970 Americans age 65 and older collectively had about 140 million teeth remaining in their mouths. Sixty years later, in 2030, we’re expecting the same group of older adults to have 930 million teeth intact. That’s a 564 percent increase.

Why the drastic change? First of all, thanks to the baby boom that occurred between 1946 and 1964, our current population of older adults is the fastest-growing age group in the country. In fact, over 10,000 Americans will reach retirement age every day for the next 19 years. We’ve also made huge strides in the way we protect teeth. Community water fluoridation has prevented tooth decay for millions of people, and it’s worth the investment – for every $1.00 we spend on fluoridation efforts, we save at least $38.00 in avoided treatment costs. Our nation’s oral health awareness and dental technology have helped today’s older adults keep their own teeth longer than ever before.

But when we have more teeth in old age, we have a greater responsibility to take care of them. And as older adults reach retirement, millions face access to care challenges in addition to chronic diseases and other health issues. Their employer-sponsored dental insurance may disappear. And Medicare and Medicaid don’t even come close to comprehensively covering the oral health needs of older adults. So where do older Americans turn to keep their mouths healthy and in check?

They overwhelmingly rely on their caregivers, many of whom are their own children or a spouse, neighbor, or friend. Family caregivers are vital to daily oral hygiene and access to routine preventive care for their loved one. But family caregivers are under incredible stress to find affordable, accessible care. They need our help.

November is National Family Caregivers Month, and Oral Health America is taking time to thank the 40 million Americans who are caring for someone over the age of 50. We’re also reminding them of how we intend to help: OHA’s newest initiative, the Wisdom Tooth Project®, aims to connect these caring advisors to local and national resources for care, educate them on oral health issues common to older adults and advocate on behalf of our country’s fastest-growing age cohort.

OHA is currently gathering stakeholders as the Wisdom Tooth Project® seeks ways to disseminate much-needed information to the public, including a web portal that will ultimately provide information about the oral health of older Americans. Our goal: to connect communities with resources to improve the oral and overall health of the elderly and make the job of their family caregivers just a little easier.

Want to learn more and get involved as the Wisdom Tooth Project® grows? Visit Oral Health America’s website. Watch our Fall Campaign for Healthy Mouths video focusing on older adults. And spread the word about the importance of oral health at every age. If we all work together, we can keep Americans smiling well into the future.