Dry comfort: A variety of factors impair salivary function in an aging population

By Jamie Collins, RDH, CDA

The Silent Generation and baby boomers are getting older, and even those in Generation X are feeling the aches and pains of aging. Age and wisdom are often accompanied by health concerns and ailments treated by two, three, or more medications. These medications can contribute to xerostomia, among other potential side effects.

Clinically we do our due diligence when we seat a patient and update the person’s medical history at every appointment. It never fails to surprise me how many patients do not know what medications they’re taking or for what reasons. I’ve learned through trial and error that my questions must be specific and include verbiage that pointedly asks about medications and surgeries. Often, in patients’ minds, “any changes” does not include changes unless they’re related to the oral cavity.

Educating individuals about the oral-systemic link and whole body connection, and informing them about risk factors, are essential to help them think beyond what they were taught early in life. My grandmother was of the generation that went to the dentist only when there was pain, and her visits usually ended with the extraction of one or more teeth. In my clinical experience, the elderly tend to wait for pain rather than focus on prevention. Changing that mindset is not easy, especially when it’s combined with fear of the dentist.

Long gone are the days when a medium or hard toothbrush was the standard, and I’ve often heard patients complain how they’re unable to find a hard brush anymore. While I’m cringing when I hear patients want a hard brush, I am also rejoicing that retailers are not selling them anymore. Education, education, and more education is needed to speak to patients about the risk factors of abrasion and about ideal homecare techniques. Changing the perception of a generation raised on hard brushing and going to the dentist only when something hurts is no easy task. However, for many patients, the brushing and flossing are just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest risk of declining oral health often comes in the form of xerostomia (see sidebar).