dementiaWe frequently discuss ways that our patients can improve their own oral health, but there are people who need help caring for theirs, including children and aging relatives. If you have loved ones who may be at risk of developing dementia, you should be aware that changes in tooth brushing is one of the first signs of this disease – before memory issues even develop. What can you do to help? Read on for our tips. 

Dementia and Oral Health Care

Aging has certain built-in challenges for oral health, but memory loss can exacerbate any of those problems. For many people with developing dementia, neglecting tooth brushing is the first sign, sometimes occurring decades before other obvious signs. Some people experience this as early as their fifties, in fact. They will postpone brushing and flossing, brush less often, or simply stop altogether. 

Unfortunately, for most people who experience this, they are not aware their oral health care patterns have changed. They believe they are still repeating the same habits and will swear they did, in fact, brush their teeth. Brushing your teeth is an activity that requires a lot of executive brain function. There are many steps involved. Someone struggling with performing daily tasks might delay doing it because it’s become more difficult and then assume they did it because it’s always been their habit to. 

People with memory issues will point out their toothbrush and toothpaste as evidence that they are brushing, but they will be using the same toothbrush they had a year or years ago. Additionally, people with Alzheimer’s disease may eventually forget how to brush and why it’s important. 

As a caregiver to an aging relative, it can be challenging to bring up these topics, and you can’t necessarily count on what they say as the truth. This is why it’s important to observe what is happening first. You should be watching to see if they brush their teeth or checking to see if their toothbrush is damp. Is it the same toothbrush or have they gotten a new one

If your observation leads you to believe your older friend or relative is not brushing or flossing enough or they have other signs of oral health problems like ill-fitting dentures or loss of appetite, then you should try to intervene. Try these tips to help:

  • Put up reminders in the bathroom or place their toothbrush out where they can see it. 
  • Give them short, simple instructions and break the tooth-brushing process into steps. You can walk them through the steps, guiding their movements. You can also demonstrate how you brush your teeth yourself. 
  • If you do direct caretaking, you may need to take over some of this yourself in order to preserve their oral health. Be gentle when you clean their mouth. A soft-bristled toothbrush may be better for them at this stage. Don’t forget to rinse and clean their dentures if they wear them. 
  • Coordinate care with their dentist and check to see if any of their medications may have adverse effects on their teeth and gums. Older people should continue going to regular dental checkups as long as they are able. 

Good oral care is important for all of us. It helps prevent tooth decay, gingivitis, and other problems from getting out of control. If your aging relative seems to be neglecting their oral health, don’t let this slide. It may be the first sign of dementia, and the sooner you can intervene, the better their health and life will be.