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As individuals age, their medical needs change; this applies to dentistry as well as to other areas of medicine. Geriatric dentistry is a division of the medical field that cares specifically for the teeth, mouth, and gums of older individuals, generally those over 65 years of age. Changing anatomy and body processes make it necessary to take a number of special considerations into account when working on the teeth of the elderly.
By the time an individual has reached 65 years or older, the chances that he or she is suffering from periodontal or gum disease is high. Many patients come with pre-existing conditions that dentists and hygienists must consider. Potentially adding to the problem is the difficulty some patients may have in caring for their teeth on a daily basis. Those who lack fine mouth skills or the strength to brush properly may present their dentists with added difficulties. These problems may be addressed by those educated in geriatric dentistry.
Some of the problems that older individuals face stem from an age-related process in which the salivary glands do not produce enough saliva to keep the mouth healthy and clean. Elderly individuals who have compromised immune systems or do not continue to maintain a healthy diet can also be prone to fungal infections in the mouth, usually first visible on the lips. Those who have lost their natural teeth still require regular dental care in order to keep dentures fitting properly, and to ensure that there are no sore spots or pockets where food can linger. These problems all require special training in a geriatric field.
Many processes and procedures must change once a practice moves into geriatric dentistry. The tissues of the mouth and gums change with age, and become more delicate. Tools and methods used on younger individuals can cause severe damage or pain to an elderly individual. Modified tools and brushes are often used on older patients to reduce the stress on their gums and teeth.
In geriatric dentistry, practitioners deal with a wide range of patients and must be capable of not only overseeing their oral care, but extending that care to the individual. Challenges can arise with patients who are delicate or fragile, and dentists must be prepared to cope with those who may have difficulties getting in and out of chairs or positioning themselves properly for an examination and cleaning. Geriatric patients can also face a number of outside problems that a dentist must be able to help them with, from difficulties financing dental treatment to an inability to get to the dentist's office; for some, this means finding a geriatric dentistry practice that is willing to come to them. Dentists must also be familiar with a host of medications that an elderly patient may be taking, because drug interactions with dental practices can be extremely hazardous.
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