We all know good oral hygiene is necessary if you want to have a sparkling smile – but many people don’t realize the critical role it also plays in maintaining overall good health.
This is particularly true for residents who live in the skilled nursing facility setting. Poor oral health can result in more than just cavities; it can negatively affect your residents’ self-esteem, encourage social isolation, cause significant pain that may disrupt their eating and sleeping habits, and most importantly, it can result in serious medical issues.
Dental problems are common among the elderly, and especially so among skilled nursing facility residents.As we age, we suffer the consequences of neglect of our oral health earlier in life. And after the age of 50, we become more susceptible to serious illnesses like oral cancer – the average oral cancer patient is just 62 years old when they are first diagnosed, and 60% of deaths from oral cancer occur in patients over the age of 65.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and there’s no better time to learn more about how you can help improve your residents’ quality of life and help them protect their health through good oral hygiene.
The Connection Between Oral Hygiene and Cancer
There are several common factors and behaviors that can increase your residents’ risk of developing oral cancer, including use of tobacco and/or alcohol during their lifetime, infection with a particular strain of the human papillomavirus virus (HPV), and prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, which may result in cancer of the lip. But more importantly, poor oral hygiene may also increase your residents’ risk of oral cancer – irritation in the mouth caused by a lack of good oral hygiene or other dental issues may be connected to a higher risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancers.
How You Can Help Protect Your Residents’ Oral Health
Skilled nursing facility clinicians and staff play a vital role in protecting residents’ oral health and helping to reduce their risk of developing oral cancer. Here are a few simple steps you can take to ensure your residents get the oral care they need to live healthier lives:
- Make sure your residents get regular dental checkups and screenings. Your residents may not recognize the signs and symptoms of oral cancer – or, if they suffer from cognitive impairments, they may not be able to notify you if they’re experiencing any symptoms. But regular dental visits will help them take better care of their oral health, and during each examination, a dentist will look carefully for any abnormalities that could be a sign of oral cancer.
- Help your residents maintain good oral hygiene on a daily basis. This may not only reduce their oral cancer risk – links have also been shown between poor oral hygiene and the risk of other cancers.
- Several factors may affect your residents’ ability to maintain their dental hygiene, from medications that detrimentally affect their oral health to medical issues like arthritis or Parkinson’s disease that may make it difficult for them to hold a toothbrush, to cognitive impairments that may prevent them from conducting activities of daily living on their own.  Helping them brush their teeth each day and working with a dentist to identify solutions like adaptive toothbrushes or medicated mouth rinses can make a big difference in their day-to-day oral hygiene.
- Ensure that your residents and their friends and family understand the importance of good oral health. Ask visitors to notify you about any changes in their loved one’s eating habits or sleeping patterns, if the resident shows a reluctance to wear dentures, or if they notice any issues that may need to be evaluated by a dentist.
Compared to the complex, high-quality medical care your facility provides to your residents each day, helping them maintain good oral hygiene may seem like a small matter – but staying on top of their oral health needs with these easy steps will allow them to live fuller, more satisfying lives.