The alarming state of oral health in the U.S. for adults aged 65 and older was revealed in a recent major report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Oral Health in America: Advances and Challenges updates the agency’s groundbreaking research documented over 20 years ago. In that report, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala concluded with great foresight, “The terms oral health and general health should not be interpreted as separate entities. Oral health is integral to general health.”
The updated research shows a persistent separation of oral and overall health is disastrous for older generations. In short, our country’s neglect of oral care past childhood has become a public health crisis for older adults, who—due to socioeconomic conditions, physical impairments and the lack of affordable insurance—are the most underserved and vulnerable in our country.
Following are key takeaways from the current NIH report, why health care must integrate oral care and solutions we can support to help.
Oral Care is Health Care
In a country as focused on health and wellness as ours, it’s surprising that oral care is perceived as separate from general health care.
The mouth is an entry point to the body. Older adults who are sick or frail are vulnerable to infectious bacteria seeding and taking hold in the lungs, arteries, gut, joints, and even the brain. Poor oral health is linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, diminished cognitive function and more.
Quality of life is also impacted by poor oral health. Oral discomfort may make it difficult to eat, feel at ease, or interact with others. Serious issues like tooth loss may cause older adults to avoid eating meals with others or isolate themselves entirely.
Thankfully, an increasing number of health care professionals, including those in the dental field, are calling for the integration of oral care into general health.
Older Adults are More Vulnerable to Poor Oral Health
Adults 65 and older suffer disproportionately from poor oral health. Nearly a quarter suffer from untreated decay. One in five has lost all their natural teeth, and one in ten has some degree of periodontitis—a potentially life-threatening infection that deteriorates gums and the jaw bone.
These serious oral health issues are largely preventable. So, why does this generation needlessly suffer?
Most older adults lose dental coverage when they leave work or military service. Medicare and Tricare (health care for veterans), which otherwise provide our country’s health safety net, provide minimal, if any dental coverage at all. This creates a burden of cost for older adults and is directly related to separating oral care from general health.
Additional challenges to oral health for older adults include physical and cognitive limitations that make accessing dental care difficult to impossible. For individuals from historically underserved or rural communities, on a limited income, or who are homebound, the obstacles can be insurmountable.
What Needs to Happen?
Today, one of the most encouraging shifts is growing pressure for Medicare and veteran health plans to provide preventive and emergency oral care. This will significantly benefit older adults, who overwhelmingly lack dental coverage and cite cost as a severe barrier.
Equally important are nationwide, comprehensive oral health care policies. Childhood oral health care is closely monitored and prescribed in the US, but that oversight ends at adulthood. A growing number of health care professionals who recognize the link between oral health and overall health are calling for a similar approach to oral health care through adulthood.
Health policies must act to make oral health care accessible to all. Supporting integrated health teams to meet communities and individuals where they are will help reduce oral health inequities among older adults.
Join the Effort to Transform Oral Care for Older Adults
Action by health care professionals (including oral health care) will help shift priorities toward oral health and wellness and end suffering for older adults.
At Delta Dental, we’re helping to expand oral health equity through grants to Federally Qualified Health Care Facilities (FQHCs) alongside our support of other nonprofit organizations addressing health disparities and access to care issues. These federally funded health care centers provide integrated care (including oral health care) to communities and enhance accessibility through mobile and teledentistry care.
We also partner with universities to provide care, test new modalities for service delivery, and better understand how to serve the older generation.
How can you get involved?
Join the call to integrate oral care into general health and take action to improve oral health for older adults. Lobby for adult Medicaid dental coverage if your state doesn’t have it, ask state and federal health exchanges to sell stand-alone dental insurance, or provide funding to organizations who are dedicated to making oral health care accessible for older adults.
Working together, we can address this public health crisis and move forward toward health and wellness for all.