Saliva, which contains essential protein molecules, electrolytes, and minerals, is critical to good oral dentistry health. Saliva lubricates and cleanses the mouth, preserves and bathes tooth structure, neutralizes acids that cause cavities, limits growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, dissolves and breaks down food, assists with taste, keeps the mouth moist (no dry mouth which helps with speaking and eating), and facilitates the retention of dentures.
Research has shown that healthy, unmedicated older adults do not have any significant decrease in saliva flow. Loss of saliva and dry mouth are not the result of normal aging, but are instead associated with illness, disease, medication treatments, and medication.
Reduced saliva flow increases the harmful effects of the organisms of the mouth, causing dental cavities, bleeding gums, plaque, burning mouth, pain, soft tissue infections, and cracks. In addition, an individual may have difficulty speaking, tasting, and swallowing food. Dentures do not fit well or feel comfortable when saliva is reduced.
Older adults take many over-the-counter and prescription medications for chronic medical conditions and disorders. For many of these medications, decrease in saliva flow is a common side effect. In fact, over 500 prescriptions and over-the-counter medications cause dry mouth (xerostomia). The medications most often associated with dry mouth are:
Although medication use is frequently associated with dry mouth, certain medical diseases, conditions, or treatments reduce saliva flow. Examples are
By Denise J. Fedele, DMD, MS