More than 1.4 million seniors reside in long-term care facilities in the USA with this number expected to increase significantly over the next few years. Compared to earlier generations, current seniors are more prone to retain their own teeth well into old-age, drastically increasing the need for adequate dental care. Sadly, many long-term care facility residents must endure compromised oral health due to a reduced ability for self-care together with diminished access to professional dental hygiene services.
All individuals who are resident in long-term care facilities need access to both daily and annual oral health care. With the mouth being the entrance to the rest of the body it is of vital importance to ensure that good oral hygiene is practiced in order to prevent illness from occurring elsewhere in the body. Dirty dentures, gum disease, and other oral impurities have been linked to a host of potentially severe illnesses including the following:
Heart disease and dementia
Poor oral health can put an already vulnerable senior at an increased risk for heart disease. The same bacteria that cause gum disease can get into the bloodstream, resulting in a plaque build-up in the arteries, causing them to harden. This condition, known as atherosclerosis, is potentially life-threatening as it leads to circulation problems and blockage which may lead to a heart attack. Damaged arteries can also result in high blood pressure which increases the risk of strokes. Another potentially fatal condition, Endocarditis, which is an infection of the heart lining, can also develop as a result of poor oral hygiene. Just like poor oral health can affect a senior’s heart, it can affect the brain as well. Bacteria released into the bloodstream from inflamed gums can travel to the brain, killing brain cells and leading to memory loss and causing dementia.
Diabetes and respiratory infections
Diabetic seniors are naturally more susceptible to infections such as gum disease, but gum disease can, in turn, also make diabetes more difficult to control with the symptoms getting progressively worse as blood glucose levels become erratic. Due to the fact that gum disease often leads to increased blood sugar levels, individuals with poor oral health conditions are at a greater risk of developing diabetes. Even the respiratory system can take a knock due to poor dental health. The bacteria that live in the mouth can be inhaled into the lungs or travel there via the bloodstream. As soon as the bacteria get to the lungs it can cause severe respiratory distress including bronchitis and pneumonia.
Ensuring good oral health in long-term care facilities
Where seniors living at home or with families often benefit from dental insurance, those in care facilities rely upon in-house facilities and staff for preventative assistance and treatment. It is imperative that all relevant staff members receive the necessary training that will enable them to assist the residents to the best of their ability. Staff needs to be able to identify potentially vulnerable individuals and aid them in their daily oral hygiene regimen including brushing, rinsing, and the proper cleaning and storage of any and all dental prostheses. Some residents, especially those with cognitive deficiencies such as Dementia or Alzheimer’s, may resist assistance given with regards to oral hygiene underlining the importance of well-trained staff that can diffuse such a situation effortlessly and takes charge of the matter at hand.
The importance of good oral hygiene cannot be reiterated enough. It is up to caregivers at all levels to ensure that the necessary procedures are in place to guarantee that every resident within the LTCF will be granted the best possible chance of enjoying good overall oral health. Not only will the implementation of these practices ensure a reduced risk of many common yet serious diseases, but it will also provide many seniors with confident smiles to reflect the beauty of their hearts.