Chew On This: Beware of your oral care

BY Alison Bailin Batz



Alzheimer’s disease.

Respiratory illness.

Not only does the incidence of diagnosis for each of these illnesses increase exponentially as one ages, seniors living with these conditions face some unique challenges, including one right under their noses—literally.

“Oral health is an issue among those living with each of these conditions, as well as an increasingly important area for overall wellness as we age,” says Kristi DeWitt, director of small business and individual sales at Delta Dental of Arizona.

“For example, diabetes reduces the body’s ability to fight infection. Because gum disease is a type of infection in the gums and the bone surrounding gums, people with diabetes can have a harder time getting rid of gum disease than their nondiabetic counterparts.”

According to DeWitt, if you have diabetes, it’s important to make your dentist aware of your condition so they know you have an increased risk for gum disease. You should also pay close attention to your oral health, making sure to brush twice a day, floss daily and visit your dentist regularly for checkups.

“People with diabetes or gum disease may also be eligible for enhanced benefits through their dental plan, which may cover extra cleanings and exams. Some studies have shown that people with diabetes who receive regular oral health care may even lower their overall medical costs from diabetes,” DeWitt says.

Similarly, the treatment for lung cancer, a crucial element of one’s care, can have an impact on oral health, especially in causing dry mouth and taking away your sense of taste, among other things. And with Alzheimer’s, certainly the caregivers of those living with the disease need to assist in ensuring proper oral health care, but in addition to this, according to a 2019 study published in Harvard Men’s Health Watch, the bacteria that cause gingivitis also may be connected to Alzheimer’s disease. The study found that this species of bacteria, called Porphyromonas gingivalis, can move from the mouth to the brain. Once in the brain, the bacteria release enzymes called gingipains that can destroy nerve cells, which in turn can lead to memory loss and eventually Alzheimer’s.

“Even if you are not living with one of these conditions, as we age, we generally take more medications,” DeWitt says. “Medications can sometimes cause dry mouth. A parched palate can increase bacteria in the mouth, resulting in tooth decay.”

“Whether you have a chronic illness or not, if you are 65 or older, it’s time to think about Medicare and its coverage as it relates to dental care,” says David Luna, co-founder of Connie Health, a local and free Medicare advisory service. “Original Medicare does not cover routine dental care. They only cover dental care if the dental services are required to protect general health.”

Luna notes that Medicare Advantage plans, or Medicare private health care plans, may offer dental coverage including routine dental services, like checkups or cleanings.

“Coverage can vary widely from plan to plan, so be sure to get help, as it can be somewhat overwhelming and confusing,” says Luna. “From now until December 7, anyone 65 or older has the chance to review their services, as it is the open-enrollment period. During this time, it is essential to review items like Medicare Advantage and how they can help to cover the out-of-pocket costs that Medicare doesn’t cover.”

DeWitt adds that individual and family dental policies can be an affordable option for people who don’t have dental coverage through their Medicare plans, so it’s good to check out the different carrier websites to learn more about their offerings for individuals. Older adults with limited income have several options when it comes to dental assistance as well.

“Reduced-cost or free clinics are available across Arizona. Dental schools are also another option,” DeWitt says. “And if considering assisted living care, you have options as well.”

DeWitt recommends asking the following questions if considering an assisted or senior living facility, either from the onset or when nearing a new agreement:

• What policies are in place to ensure residents are following their daily oral health care routine?

• What assistance is provided to residents who are unable or unwilling to properly brush and floss?

• Are dental devices, such as dentures, cleaned and maintained?

• Do residents have access to regular oral health care from trained dental professionals?

• How often do residents receive a dental exam and/or cleaning?

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