Poor dental health looming for ageing kiwis

Urgent attention needs to be paid to frail older New Zealanders’ oral health, a University of Otago study has highlighted.

In a world first, the Otago researchers surveyed the oral health of 987 people living in aged residential care and found those with dementia, and older men in general, have dirtier and more decayed teeth.

Their findings are published in the journal Gerodontology.

Otago Head of Department of Oral Sciences and lead author, Professor Murray Thomson, described poor oral health as one of the “geriatric giants” with the situation a “major clinical and public health problem which is going to get worse”.

Older people have higher rates of cognitive and physical impairments that can adversely affect their oral self-care and complicate the provision of oral care, Professor Thomson said.

“Neither the aged care sector nor the dental profession, in most countries, is prepared.”

Of those examined in the study (representative of the more than 14,000 New Zealanders living in aged care), about half had severely impaired cognitive function, and more than a third required fillings or extractions.

Those with severely impaired cognitive function had greater numbers of teeth with decay. They also had higher oral debris scores, reflecting poorer daily oral hygiene care.

Professor Thomson said greater rates of tooth decay can result in dental and facial infections, poorer quality of life, malnutrition and difficulties in communication.

The researchers also found that even the most cognitively impaired participants were able to be examined fairly easily, meaning that regular, routine removal of oral debris by carers should not be difficult.

“The issue that we currently face is that much of that debris removal is not being done, and this, along with frequent exposure to sugary, over-processed meals and snacks, and poor salivary function, is enabling plaque and dental caries to flourish in aged residential care populations.”

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