When you care for residents in a skilled nursing facility, you juggle a lot of important responsibilities. It’s your job to help your residents achieve the best possible health outcomes through the management of their chronic conditions, compliance with taking essential medications, and ensuring that they get proper nutrition each day.
But a growing body of research indicates that managing chronic medical concerns is just one part of the health and wellbeing puzzle. For example, routine health maintenance may not seem like it is connected to overall health outcomes – but in fact, it plays a major role in protecting us from increased risk of suffering from debilitating physical and mental conditions.
In particular, caring for your residents’ oral health through proper dental care can not only help diagnose potential chronic health conditions but can also keep other illnesses at bay. Keep reading to learn more about how promoting good oral health should be an essential component of your care plan for keeping your residents safe and healthy.
The Link Between Dental Care and Health Outcomes
As we age, we become more susceptible to dental health problems. Older adults suffer from higher rates of gum disease, dental decay, oral cancer, mouth infections, and tooth loss. And the risk of tooth damage that’s severe enough to require a root canal or other invasive procedure triples in patients over the age of 65.
Research has shown a direct connection between oral health and systemic health and that good oral health can prevent or reduce the impact of some health conditions. For example, bacteria from a resident’s mouth can enter his or her lungs, increasing the risk of contracting pneumonia. Studies have shown the possibility of a link between oral health and rheumatoid arthritis. And poor oral health has also been linked to muscle loss and diabetes and is recognized as a predictor of cardiovascular disease and premature mortality from all causes.
Additionally, consider the following:
- Gum disease can lead to insulin sensitivity and impaired glucose tolerance.
- Residents with chronic diseases like diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and COPD are more likely to develop gum disease but less likely to get treatment.
- Many medications taken by older adults can cause dry mouth, which leads to irritation and infection of oral tissue and increases the risk of tooth decay, gum disease, and cavities.
- Oral frailty (loss of teeth, difficulty eating and/or swallowing, ill-fitting dentures, or dental work that is in disrepair) often leads to an inability to chew food, resulting in malnutrition, weakness, muscle loss, disability, and even mortality. It may also be linked to diabetes, as pain or difficulty chewing may result in a tendency to eat soft, sugary foods or eat less and try to finish more quickly, which causes a spike in glucose.
- One in five adults over the age of 65 has lost all of their teeth.
- The median age at which oral cancer is diagnosed is 62.
Lack of proper dental care can also impact your residents’ mental health – tooth loss may cause them to become more self-conscious about their appearance or make it more difficult for them to talk and communicate with family and friends, leading them to withdraw from social situations and become lonelier and more isolated.
The best way to ensure your residents don’t suffer unintended health consequences due to poor oral health is to ensure they have access to regular dental checkups. Dentists can diagnose existing oral health issues and begin a treatment plan – but importantly, because many medical conditions can present with early symptoms that affect the mouth and teeth, they can also be useful in identifying potential health problems before they’ve reached an advanced stage. For example, dentists are more likely to recognize early signs of oral cancer. They can also screen for nutritional issues, diabetic symptoms and assess for sleep apnea risk.
You can also help by reminding your residents to brush and floss each day. For those patients with cognitive issues, disabilities, or weaknesses that may make dental care difficult, a dentist can recommend adaptive devices like electric toothbrushes or special mouthwash to make this daily routine easier to tackle.