A healthy mouth is very important for overall health. In addition to nutritional concerns, gum disease can lead to heart disease as well as a host of other medical issues including stroke, digestion trouble, and infection.
For Alzheimer’s patients, a loss of functions can include the inability to care properly for one’s teeth and gums. Those with early-stage dementia can begin to neglect the basics of oral health like brushing their teeth and flossing and simply need reminding. In the late stages, caregivers may need to take over the task of keeping a patient’s mouth clean.
However, there are a number of other factors that can lead to Alzheimer’s patients experiencing dental health problems. This includes:
- Age: Alzheimer’s patients are typically older adults and as people age, they become generally more susceptible to tooth decay and disease, just due to regular wear and tear. Paying attention to dental hygiene is simply more important during this phase of life.
- Grinding teeth: Bruxism is the scientific term for teeth grinding. Dementia patients often develop a habit of teeth grinding and clenching which can have an effect on oral health.
- A previous past of poor oral hygiene: Evidence suggests there is some connection between the bacteria and inflammation that comes with poor dental health and risk factors surrounding dementia. While there is more research to be done, some studies suggest that poor dental health raises the risk of dementia by up to 70%. This makes it more likely that Alzheimer’s and dementia patients already suffer from a lack of positive dental habits.
- Dry Mouth: Often medications that Alzheimer’s patients take for other issues like depression and heart disease cause a condition called xerostomia, commonly known as dry mouth. Saliva is very important in the fight against tooth decay, bacteria and gum disease and dry mouth symptoms can lead to worsening oral health. Saliva helps wash sugars from the mouth and teeth and prevents acids from eroding tooth enamel.
- Sugary medications: Many liquid medications use sugar as a major ingredient. If taken without brushing to follow up this can cause tooth decay.
Signs of Dental Health Issues
Many Alzheimer’s patients may not be able to properly communicate their mouth discomfort and you may have to identify signs that oral health has become an issue. Some indicators to look for include:
- Pained look when eating and avoidance of hot or cold foods/beverages
- Chronic halitosis
- A touching or biting of lips or inner cheeks
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of proper sleep
- Tendency to drool
- Aggression toward any attempt to attend to dental care
How to Help as a Caregiver
Prevention of poor oral health means creating routines that can be easily followed. Doing as much as possible to prevent gum disease and tooth decay in the early stages of dementia will pay dividends in the long run.
Daily Oral Care Tips
Simple brushing and flossing is the best way to continue to care for teeth. However, for older adults, there are specific tooth care products that can help with oral health.
- The best toothbrush: it’s possible that investing in a soft-bristled brush will prove more successful than using hard bristles. If brushing is difficult due to arthritis, an electric brush will certainly help.
- Moistening mouthwash: A dentist may recommend using Biotene toothpaste or mouthwash if a patient is experiencing dry mouth due to medications.
Helpful Oral Care Reminders
There are many ways that caregivers can help promote better oral health habits.
Stick to a Routine
Routines can help dementia patients feel more comfortable. Creating patterns or setting timers or alarms surrounding oral care may help make the act of brushing and flossing feel more natural. Perhaps specific music or using the occurrence of a favorite television program as a prompt for times to take on oral care will be useful. Other techniques can include visual cues like signs or stickers. A recent article, that discusses aging teeth, provides printable dental health reminder stickers that you can download to help your patient or loved one remember to floss, brush, and visit the dentist regularly.
Make the Tasks Manageable
Keeping instructions simple may help some dementia patients who have difficulty processing several tasks simultaneously. Breaking down the action of brushing into composite parts, such as: get a toothbrush, put on toothpaste, open your mouth, etc, might glean improved results.
Often physical rather than verbal instruction is helpful for those with dementia. Acting out the actions of brushing teeth or even going through the actions of brushing one’s own teeth as an example can help motivate positive habits.
Regularly Check-In and Make Appointments
Checking in on the oral health of a dementia patient is something that should be done at least once a month. Scheduling regular dental visits are imperative for maintaining proper oral health. A familiar dentist is ideal, however, if a regular dentist is no longer available find out if there is a nearby dentist that specializes in dementia patients. There are some dentists that “adopt” care facilities. Ask if there is one that comes regularly to a facility.
While oral health is clearly not the only concern for caregivers of patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s it is something that is important to address when considering overall health and quality of life. With all the challenges caregivers face, hopefully, these helpful tips can allow this daily task to be something that causes a bit less stress.