Next week’s East Texas Mission of Mercy dental clinic may be an opportunity for seniors to get the dental care they need. Seniors often lack access to dental services and experience ongoing oral health problems.
The charitable event was established in Tyler in 2001 and has been using dentists and volunteers to aid hundreds of East Texans every other year.
According to the federal government’s Administration on Aging, about 70 percent of seniors have no dental coverage.
Medicare does not cover routine visits, leaving seniors to pay out of pocket. But on limited incomes, they don’t always have that luxury. When they avoid the dentist because of financial reasons, they risk an onslaught of dental problems.
According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, 23 percent of seniors older than 65 have untreated decay.
Oral health is a window into one’s overall health. Poor oral health — tooth decay and periodontal disease — are linked to obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
For example, dentists have said that oral health and diabetes affect each other—it’s a two-way street.
In a 2006 American Dental Association report, researchers detail the impact of inflammatory periodontal disease on diabetes, stating that it can “adversely affect the metabolic control of diabetes.” The treatment of periodontal disease and the reduction of oral inflammation may have a positive affect on a patient with diabetes, the report states.
A FOCUS ON ORAL HEALTH FOR SENIORS
Dr. David Nichols, a Tyler dentist, spearheads East Texas Mission of Mercy and also has participated in dental missions to Belize.
He’s seen seniors show up at Mission of Mercy but can’t estimate how many.
“We do have a significant number of people over 50 years old that do come,” he said.
In his private practice, he said more than half of his patients pay cash and have no type of dental insurance. He says dentistry has always been that way, but with more awareness about oral health, more people are urging that it has as much emphasis as general health care.
“Now it’s beginning to get grouped with medical,” Nichols said. “So the expectations are different now.”
However, the only options for low-income seniors are to find dentists willing to make financial arrangements or to participate in charitable dental clinics, such as East Texas Mission of Mercy.
“I don’t think there will be a system put in place that will take care of the Medicare people, dental-wise … Many elderly people are doing without because of financial reasons,” Nichols said.
Another Tyler dentist, Dr. Roy Smith, recently served 297 people during a charitable clinic, providing cleanings, extractions and fillings.
Smith’s office manager, Denyse Hearon, said seniors represent a large part of their practice.
“There are a lot of patients that are over 65 and basically they’re already in dentures or well on their way to dentures or partials,” Ms. Hearon said. “A lot of it is medicine patients take that dry their mouth out. That’s what we find with a lot of patients.”
In fact, 25 percent of adults more than 65 no longer have their natural teeth, according to the National Center for Health and the Aging.
Tooth loss can inhibit the ability to eat a balanced diet. It also can create problems with speech, physical appearance and self-esteem.
ORAL HEALTH AND NUTRITION
Good oral health isn’t the result of brushing teeth only. While certain medications and smoking contributes to the destruction of teeth, the most damage is done via an unhealthy diet, Nichols said. This includes excessive consumption of sugary drinks, mainly soda.
Nichols, who comes from a family of doctors and has also taught nutrition, is adamantly against regularly drinking soda.
“All the problems we are trying to get treated are the result of the patients’ lifestyle habits that are harmful,” he said. “Soft drinks are possibly as harmful as anything we have done to ourselves in society.”
Nichols said it’s possible to reverse some damage done to the teeth by using topical fluoride and changing to a healthier diet.