Over half of older people in Ireland have not visited a dentist in at least three years, despite the fact that good oral health is essential for overall wellbeing, a new study has found.
According to researchers in Tallaght Hospital and Trinity College Dublin (TCD), there is growing concern among health professionals about the quality of oral health among older people. They set out to identify potential obstacles faced by these patients when accessing dental care.
They questioned 105 patients over the age of 65 who were attending a geriatric outpatient clinic. The average age of the participants was 79.
The study found that over 50% of the people questioned had not attended a dentist in at least three years. Almost two in three of these felt they had ‘no problem or need for treatment', while just over half felt they had no need to attend because they had no teeth.
Previous research suggests that as many as 41% of older people have no natural teeth, while those with teeth have an average of just eight.
However, the researchers pointed out that while it is common to assume that having no teeth means there is no need to see a dentist, regular dental visits are essential for screening for diseases such as oral cancer, which older people are more prone to.
The study also found that older people were less likely to have visited the dentist in the last three years if they had been diagnosed with a cognitive impairment, such as dementia.
The researchers noted that poor oral health can lead to many specific problems among older people, such as chewing difficulties, which can limit dietary choices and affect overall nutrition and general health.
Poorly fitted false teeth can also cause pain and discomfort, a loss of self-confidence and a reduction in quality of life.
The researchers believe there are a number of obstacles facing older people when it comes to their dental health, including, the view that no teeth means no need. Other issues include past dental experiences, a lack of awareness of entitlements to treatment, reduced mobility and concerns about the physical access to dental surgeries.
The study concludes that there needs to be ‘a change in attitudes to oral health and dental care'.
"One way to achieve this may be to provide targeted education at geriatric out-patient clinics, both to patients and relatives/carers, which explains the importance of regular attendance, even in people with no teeth.
"In this setting, it would also be fruitful to inform patients about oral hygiene, as well as their entitlements to dental access/treatments," the researchers said.
They also insisted that there a ‘clear need for better preventative and interventional care in the community, as well as in residential care'.
"In particular, dental services should move away from the ‘one size fits all' approach, and instead, be tailored to the individual needs of patients. Dentists would also benefit from additional training in the care of an older population," they added.
Details of these findings are published in the Irish Medical Journal.