A NEW ANALYSIS SHOWS there’s a major gap in health care for older Americans: dental care.
Overall in the U.S., about 29% of adults 65 and older had dental insurance in 2017, and about 66% had seen a dentist in the last year, according to survey data published Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those levels land far below the rates for younger adults with private insurance, but are generally on par with younger adults overall.
Yet dental care for older adults is often “overlooked,” the new report says, and major disparities exist in who has access to and receives dental care – with potential health consequences that can reach far beyond teeth.
“Dental care is an important component of health care for the older population,” the CDC report says. “Chronic diseases that may impact oral health and the need for care, such as diabetes and osteoporosis, are common among the older population, and poor oral health may contribute to the risk of certain conditions.”
For example, about 70% of adults 65 and older have some form of gum disease, compared with about 47% of adults overall. Gum disease, which can lead to tooth loss, is typically caused by poor oral hygiene and also has been linked to smoking, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Dental care can represent a unique challenge for older adults, who typically have access to health coverage through Medicare, the new report notes. The federal health program doesn’t cover regular dental care, though, creating a financial barrier to care for some older adults.
In 2017, nearly 8% of older adults didn’t receive the dental care they needed in the last year because they couldn’t afford it, CDC data show. Those rates were significantly higher for older adults who were Hispanic or black, between the ages of 65 and 74 or living below or near the poverty level.
“Poor older adults were less likely to have dental insurance and to have visited the dentist, and more likely to have an unmet need for dental care due to cost compared with not-poor older adults,” the report says.
These challenges can be especially severe for older adults who already have dental issues. In 2017, only about 15% of older adults who had lost all of their teeth had dental insurance – compared with about 33% who still had their own teeth – and they also were less likely to have visited a dentist in the last year, the survey found. Nearly 1 in 5 older adults has lost all of their teeth, according to the CDC.
“Regular dental care is recommended for all older adults, even those with full dentures,” the report says.
Older adults who are poor, uninsured and racial or ethnic minorities also tend to have the poorest oral health, the CDC notes. In addition to financial barriers, some social factors also can contribute to oral health disparities, including poor diet and the use of tobacco or alcohol.
“Oral health disparities are profound in the United States,” the CDC says.