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Will older patients receive the dental care they need in 8 years’ time?

How old will you be in 2020? If you are due to reach pensionable age within the next decade then your teeth might well need special attention – attention that the British Dental Association (BDA) is rightly determined to ensure that you receive.

The BDA has put together a report called 2020 Vision: Oral Healthcare for Older People which forecasts the level of oral healthcare on offer to older people in 2020 and makes a number of key recommendations.

Commenting on the need for the report, Ian Wylie, chief executive of the BDA, points out: “Not only are people living longer but, thanks to improvement in dental care, many more of us will keep our teeth for life.”

This is a desirable situation but more old people with more natural teeth certainly presents more challenges for the dentistry industry and the government as it tries to satisfy the demands of a highly health-conscious and savvy section of society.

Luckily, improvement in dental care has been made possible by the increased affordability and availability of treatments such as Invisalign, Inman Aligner and dental implants. London dentist Ethicare has helped many of its older patients benefit from these procedures.

Nationwide research has shown that older patients are increasingly prepared to take preventative oral health measures – the 1998 Adult Dental Health survey found that adults aged over 55 were twice as likely to have regular dental check-ups than they were in 1978.

An ageing population: the stats

There are certainly many more elderly people around than there were in 1978 and this trend is expected to continue. Thanks mainly to a combination of increased life expectancy and falling birth rate, by 2020 the proportion of the UK population aged 65 and over is expected to rise from the current 16 per cent to 20 per cent.

This demographic trend, the BDA predicts, will result in a rise in the numbers of older people who need complex restorations to retain as many of their natural teeth as possible.

BDA recommendations

The BDA has drawn up a list of 21 recommendations which it would like to see implemented by the government and the dentistry industry within the next two years.

These recommendations include:

  • Making free examinations available to patients aged 65+ across the UK
  • Conducting research, including controlled trials, to explore methods of encouraging effective self-care by older people
  • Teaching undergraduate dental students about complete and partial dentures and giving them experience of visiting care homes

Ethnicity, old people and oral health

The BDA is also keen to stress the demographics within the ageing population. For instance, as the population of older people is growing larger it is also becoming “ethnically more diverse”.

Partly as a result of first and second-generation immigrants reaching old age, the proportion of minority ethnic groups in England rose from six per cent to nine per cent in 1991.

This trend could have implications because research conducted by Acheson in 1988 found that “ethnic minority communities have generally worse health”.

Further research from the Department of Health in 1999, suggested that members of these communities are less likely to visit the dentist.

Gender, old people and oral health

Women have a longer life expectancy than men and also have different issues relating to oral health care needs. The 1998 General Household Survey found that females aged over 85 are less likely to use dental services than men in the same age category were.

Research conducted by Professor Anthea Tinker in 2002 showed that elderly women in this age bracket have more mobility issues than men do and “are more likely to suffer anxiety and depression”.

Such issues inevitably affect access to vital dental services.

Dry mouth

A number of medicines prescribed to older people suffering from dementia, particularly ones available in ‘syrup form’, can affect oral health by causing side effects such as ‘dry mouth’. Thankfully, the BDA notes that, the development of newer, tablet-form, drugs, cause fewer oral health drawbacks.

High expectations and hope for the future

Such breakthroughs in the world of medicine will help health professionals meet the increasingly high oral health care expectations of health-conscious Brits – expectations which do not seem to diminish with age. The 1998 Adult Dental Health Survey found that a growing proportion of those aged over 55 “expect to keep some of their natural teeth for life”.

This would have seemed like a ridiculous ambition in 1968 when, according to the BDA, “only a small number of people of pensionable age had any teeth at all”. Today, over half of all pensioners have some of their natural teeth.

People are working harder than ever to look after their teeth and are enjoying sound oral health deeper into their lives than ever before. With a little help from the government and the dentistry profession, there is every chance that this will still be the case in 2020.

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