LIFE CARE PLANNING: Proper Dental Care Essential to Good Health

SPECIAL to the
Sandra W. Reed Life Care Planning

I don’t often use personal experience for this column. I am doing so this week to emphasize this warning to readers: Do not neglect dental care; it is essential to your health.

Several weeks ago, I noticed a pimple on the gum beside one of my lower teeth. I had experienced no pain in the tooth, so wasn’t alarmed. However, at my regularly scheduled six-month cleaning the next week, I mentioned it to the hygienist and the dentist. Dr. Chau examined the tooth and took X-rays. The X-ray didn’t show an abscess but did reveal a “shadow” that concerned her. She suspected the pimple was a fistula releasing pus from an adjacent tooth.

Dr. Chau referred me to an endodontist, a specialized dentist who performs root canals. The endodontist concluded my problem was related to my gums and sent me to a periodontist, a specialized dentist who treats gum disease.

Dr. LaBorde’s examination did indeed reveal gum disease, thankfully confined to the two right lower molars. He mapped out a plan of treatment which would begin with determining whether the two teeth were intact or cracked. If the teeth weren’t cracked, the teeth could be “deep cleaned” and treated with antibiotics. If they were cracked, they would have to be extracted and replaced with implants, there being no method to prevent bacteria from seeping through a crack.

Unfortunately, cracks showed up in both teeth. Upon removal, the endodontist also discovered serious infection that had already eaten away bone. Fortunately, he could (and did) perform a bone graft to replace the lost bone and provide adequate support for the implants.

I was lucky that the problem was caught in time – primarily due to routine dental care – to prevent further damage. Had the infection gone untreated, the medical evidence suggests it could have harmed my overall health.

Dental Disease: Dangerous to Health

During the six months prior, I had periodically experienced symptoms that resembled flu, including joint and muscle aches and pains. Each time these symptoms lasted a day or two and went away. Following the dental surgery, I researched whether those symptoms might have been related to the infection in my teeth. My research revealed they likely were. The endodontist confirmed my “diagnosis.”

Many studies have found links between gum disease and other serious health issues, including pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other joint and muscle problems. Although gum disease may not be the direct cause of heart attacks, those with periodontal disease are more likely to have poor heart health.

Seniors Often Neglect Regular Dental Care

Given the number of life-threatening conditions that can stem from diseased teeth and gums, seniors need to be vigilant in seeking regular dental care. According to Senior Living, an online magazine, self-described as “Your Unbiased Guide to Senior Living and Retirement,” 30% of older adults have untreated cavities and 25% of those between 65 and 74 have periodontal disease.

Numerous conditions can create this risk. Seniors can contribute to their dental problems through poor nutrition. Since the number one cause of tooth decay is sugar, seniors, who indulge in sodas, juices, energy drinks, hard candy, and sticky candies like caramels and gummy bears, are inviting trouble. Those who consume too much caffeine, alcohol, acidic juices and sodas and too little water are more likely to suffer dry mouth, which can lead to dental problems. Seniors who continue to smoke increase their risk of gum disease, tooth decay and tooth loss.

Often seniors, especially following retirement, are at a higher risk for oral health issues. They may neglect dental care because obtaining low-cost services is difficult. They often take medications that cause dry mouth, soreness, or even bone loss. They develop cavities and gum disease as a result of dry mouth. Some neglect care due to lack of transportation to services. They may become careless about at-home care routines like brushing and flossing.

Managing the Cost of Dental Care

Dental care is expensive. Regular cleanings can run $100 or more. Root canals and crowns carry a price tag of $1,000 or more. The bill for my periodontal treatment - with the surgery required, extractions and implants (not counting the additional charges of the regular dentist and the endodontist that preceded it) - was approximately $6,000.00.

Medicare does not pay for routine check-ups, cleanings and filings; even supplemental insurance covering some dental services, is often limited to $1,500.00. Therefore, most dental care is an out-of-pocket expense.

It is crucial to add the anticipated expense of dental care in calculating the savings needed for retirement. Dental plans may help but some do not justify the premiums. Some dentists offer discounts for uninsured patients. Others offer discounts for payment by cash or check. Seniors should request these options or seek a payout plan that suits their budgets, even if these aids aren’t initially offered. It never hurts to ask.

Federally and state funded community clinics managed by the Oral Health Program provide dental services for adults at discounted rates on a sliding scale based on household income. Patients are not required to live in the county where the clinic is located. Go online to to find a clinic.

Families Members Can Help

Family members can assist the seniors they love in maintaining good dental health. They can encourage them to eat properly. They make certain that regular dental check-ups are scheduled and appointments are met, providing transportation if necessary. Those with the means can provide financial assistance to obtain needed dental care. They can be alert to symptoms that indicate dental or gum disease is in progress that needs immediate attention.

Sandra W. Reed is an attorney with Katten & Benson, an Elder Law firm, whose principal office is in Fort Worth. She lives and practices in Somervell County. If you have questions or concerns, please contact her by email at or by phone at 254.797.0211.