Causes of Cavities as We Age
Saliva, a major chemical buffer that maintains the acid/base balance in our mouths and is produced by salivary glands. These glands are predominantly located in our cheeks and under our tongues. These glands produce two types of saliva. Serous saliva is “wet and watery”, and mucoid saliva is “sticky and thick.” Serous glands mainly produce buffering chemicals that prevent gum disease and cavities, and mucous glands contribute proteins that are important in food digestion.
As we get older, fat gets stored in our serous salivary glands and replaces the cells that produce saliva. The result of this is a gradual decrease in the amount of serous saliva produced. Therefore, xerostomia (“dry mouth”) occurs, and the mouth becomes more acidic from bacterial digestion and function. Since acidity is what causes decay, we are more prone to decay as we get older.
Many medications and chemotherapy also cause xerostomia. Although modern medications can control high blood pressure, heart disorders, arthritis, etc., they also reduce salivary gland function as a side effect. Chemotherapy slows down cell multiplication in those cells that reproduce rapidly, including salivary gland cells.
Since many changes occur in the mouth as we age, it is important that regular dental check-ups are kept. It may be prudent to consider more frequent dental examinations to catch new areas of decay when they are small. Of course, professional fluoride therapy and fluoridated toothpaste coupled with good home oral hygiene are the best ways to minimize the effects of xerostomia that occur with aging.