Americans aged 50 and older realize the importance of oral health but aren’t necessarily taking the steps to prioritize it as they should, finds Delta Dental’s Senior Oral Health Report: Older Americans’ Oral Care Regrets, Barriers and Impact. Eighty percent of older Americans don’t go to the dentist as often as recommended today despite ranking “not brushing and flossing more” as their third biggest regret regarding their physical health. Our ability to smile and not feel judged by others has a significant impact on our social well-being. The study reveals that two in five (40%) smile less compared to when they were younger due to deteriorating oral health or the appearance of their teeth.
Generally, there’s a lack of understanding between the connection of oral health to our overall health among older Americans. Two in three (66%) have never discussed their dental visits or oral health with their primary care provider and more than half (55%) say they never discussed their general health or current medications with their dentist. These are critical gaps as physical, mental and oral health treatment become more integrated to reflect the connections among body, mind and mouth.
Closing these gaps is imperative to build a healthier society, particularly for the senior population. “Our seniors are facing an oral health crisis due to unique challenges and barriers to access that have significant overall health implications,” says Sarah Chavarria, President at Delta Dental. “We believe healthcare is a right for all, which is why improving the quality of oral health care and increasing access and resources for this vulnerable and underserved population is a priority for us at Delta Dental.”
Barriers To Prioritizing Oral Health
The survey revealed three main barriers to prioritizing oral health amongst Older Americans:
- Lack of understanding between the oral health and overall health connection
- Access to care including transportation, time and physical mobility
- Negative emotions associated with dental visits
Identifying and understanding the barriers to oral health for Older Americans is the first step in addressing the needs and resources necessary to provide quality care for this vulnerable population. Better maintained preventative oral care is instrumental in mitigating the risk for potentially more invasive and costly treatments down the road.
Damaging Implications of Separating Our Mouth from Our Body
Our mouths are a gateway to our bodies and diseases that start in our teeth and gums can have profound and significant impacts on our overall health, social well-being and quality of life. Despite this, findings suggest most older Americans could be better informed on the connection between oral health and overall health. In fact, most are not talking to their primary care providers about their dental health nor are they talking to their dentist about their overall health or current medications.
Key findings from older Americans in the survey reveal:
- Three in five (61%) did not know that gum swelling can be linked to diabetes, heart disease, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Over 8 in 10 (83%) say they did not know that gingivitis is contagious and can be passed through kissing.
- Two in five (40%) don’t know bacteria from your mouth can spread to other parts of your body.
“Our mouth and our body are not separate entities,” says Dr. Daniel Croley, Delta Dental’s Chief Dental Officer. “What goes on in our mouths can impact our whole selves and vice versa. For example, inflammation of gums, which can show redness, swelling or even bleeding, can be linked to diabetes, heart disease and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease – a fact that, according to our study, over three in five older Americans were not aware of. Because we’re able to diagnose and monitor diseases through oral health care, regular visits to your dentist can help you keep those conditions and diseases in check.”
BIPOC Communities Face Disproportionate Barriers to Oral Care Access
As one of the biggest barriers, access to care is a particular concern. Older Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) disproportionately face difficulties to physically accessing their dental care. One in three (30%) older BIPOC Americans rely on other modes of transportation besides driving themselves to get to the dentist. Commute times for older BIPOC Americans are longer than for older white Americans – 75% of older white Americans can get to their dentist in 30 minutes or less compared to 65% of older BIPOC Americans.
Despite these physical barriers to access for BIPOC Americans aged 50 and older, they are much more likely to connect their oral health to their physical health. Fifty percent of older BIPOC Americans talk to their dentist about their physical health, compared to just 37% of older white Americans.
This may suggest that cultural differences influence how individuals value these connections, or it could reveal a more problematic issue, speculates Dr. Karen Horace, Dental Policy Manager at Delta Dental: “Statistically, many Black patients have less access to health professionals than white patients and those in other less-marginalized communities,” she says. “So, when they see their physician or dentist, it is highly probable many are going to use that opportunity to bring all of their health issues with them.”
The Link Between Oral Health and Emotional and Mental Health
Our oral health not only impacts our overall health, but also how we view ourselves and connect with others. Almost two in five (37%) older Americans say they are worried about being negatively judged based on the appearance of their teeth, and nearly three in ten (30%) feel like they are missing out on connecting with other people because they feel too embarrassed to smile or laugh.
Emotions also come into play when making the decision to schedule a visit with a dentist – fear and anxiety stand in the way. Forty six percent of respondents state that the top reason that they don’t visit the dentist is because they either don’t like or fear going to the dentist. Notably, today, innovation in dentistry has made the experience of sitting in the dental chair less painful and frightening. And regular check-ups with a dentist prevent issues from worsening and requiring invasive treatments.
Prioritizing our oral health, no matter what life stage we are in, will improve our quality of life in a multitude of impactful ways. For older Americans (and young ones alike) who are looking to improve their oral health, Delta Dental recommends everyone follow the “2-1-2” rule – brush for two minutes, floss at least once a day, and see your dentist for check-ups two times a year.
Delta Dental is committed to providing older adults with consistent, quality access to oral health care, improving education and driving lasting policy changes to address systemic issues. To learn more about the survey, view Delta Dental’s full report and fact sheet.