Understanding gum disease in the elderly

Your risk of developing gum disease increases with age, and some figures suggest that 7 out of 10 people over 65 have the condition. 

Gum disease, gum infection, periodontal disease, is a gum infection where the soft tissues around the teeth are inflamed and damaged. In advanced cases, there may also be the destruction of the bones that support the teeth.

Gum disease has many contributing factors, but it comes about as a gradual build-up of bacteria in the mouth, and poor dental hygiene. If unaddressed, the disease can cause severe pain, as well as loose teeth.

What are the stages of gum disease?

Gum disease is separated into four stages based on the advancement, symptoms, and reversibility. 

Stage 1: Gingivitis

Gingivitis is the only reversible stage of gum disease because the bacteria hasn’t attacked the bones supporting the teeth yet. It is caused by plaque buildup around the teeth, and because the symptoms are mostly painless, there’s a good chance that your dentist will catch it.

Symptoms that manifest at this stage include bad breath, swelling and redness in the gums, and bleeding while flossing or brushing.

Stage 2: Slight periodontal disease

While it’s not reversible, slight periodontal disease is manageable. The bacterial infection at this stage has reached the bone, causing destruction and bone loss. Your dentist will most likely recommend more aggressive measures than simple oral hygiene. 

Symptoms of stage 2 include bleeding during brushing or flossing, bad breath, and probing depths up to 5 mm (this will be confirmed by your dentist).

Stage 3: Moderate periodontal disease

In this stage, you’ll experience more severe symptoms with a greater probing depth of up to 7 mm. Pockets this deep allow bacteria to attack the bones and possibly find their way to your bloodstream. 

As with slight periodontal disease, oral hygiene won’t cut it. Instead, your dentist will likely perform scaling and root planing. These will remove bacteria deposits in your gums and help manage the disease.

Stage 4: Advanced periodontal disease

Individuals with stage 4 periodontal disease have up to a 90% chance of bone loss. The good news is that symptoms like pain and bleeding are evident before this stage, giving your dentist time to act and recommend the appropriate treatment.

Some of the advanced symptoms include redness, gum swelling with oozing pus, pain while chewing, and sensitivity to cold. Treatment of advanced periodontal disease usually includes surgery or periodontal laser therapy to handle the bacteria pockets. 

Who is at risk of getting periodontitis?

Besides poor dental health, individuals who fall in one or more of these categories are prone to developing gum disease.

  • Smoking (cigarettes, marijuana, or vaping)
  • Vitamin C deficiency
  • Use of certain medications like antacids and decongestants
  • Hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause
  • Genetics

How can you prevent periodontal disease?

Like many conditions, prevention is often the best solution. Developing and adopting a healthy oral routine including the following is the best measure. 

  • Brushing twice daily
  • Flossing at least once a day
  • Using fluoride toothpaste
  • Visiting the dentist at least twice a year

If you’re over 65 years, your dentist may recommend more frequent visits.

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