Dementia and Oral Health

Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of progressive conditions that affect the brain. There are over 200 sub-types of dementia, but the five most common are: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, fronto-temporal dementia and mixed dementia.

Older adults with dementia-related conditions like Alzheimer’s disease are at increased risk for tooth decay and gum disease and may lose their ability to brush their teeth effectively. They may pay less attention to personal grooming. Medications may also complicate their oral health.

Proper care of the mouth and teeth can help prevent eating difficulties, digestive problems and extensive dental procedures down the road, says the Alzheimer Association personal care brochure for “assisting a person with dementia with changing daily needs.” However, brushing is sometimes difficult because a person with dementia may forget how or why it is important to take care of his or her mouth.

Here are a few tips to assist with the oral care:

  • Provide short, simple instructions. “Brush your teeth” by itself may be too non-specific. Break down each step by saying: “Hold your toothbrush.” “Put paste on the brush.” Then, “brush your teeth with the toothbrush.”
  • Use a “watch me” or “hand-over-hand” technique. Hold a brush, and show the person how to brush his or her teeth. Or, put your hand over the person’s hand, gently guiding the brush.
  • Monitor daily oral care. Brush teeth or dentures after each meal, and floss teeth daily. Remove and clean dentures every night. Very gently brush the person’s gums, tongue and roof of the mouth. Investigate any signs of mouth discomfort during mealtime. The person may refuse to eat or make strained facial expressions while eating. These signs may point to mouth pain or dentures that don’t fit properly.
  • Keep up with regular dental visits for as long as possible. A dental care routine is essential for healthy teeth. Ask the dentist for suggestions or items that may help make dental care easier.