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Dental Coverage and Care for Seniors

by Bruce Haring

Some of us were born with great teeth.  And some of us weren’t so lucky.  If you’re reading this with a mouthful of gummy worms, you’ll probably try to blame it all on heredity.   But dentists are now saying that good dental habits probably have as much to do with your overall dental health as genetics do.

So where do you fall in the great tooth debate?  Well, whether you were blessed with good genes or have to work at it, the state of your dental health as a senior may be connected to how well you took care of your teeth starting way back in childhood.   On the other hand, it’s never too late to start giving them the attention they deserve.

Some seniors feel like they can take a dental vacation once they reach a certain age – but don’t do it.  The truth is, older adults are susceptible to some conditions of the mouth that the younger folks don’t generally get.  Almost 30 percent of older adults have untreated cavities and an amazing one-third of that population throughout the world will lose their teeth.  And did you know that 70 percent of seniors over 65 are affected by gum disease?  Periodontal disease doesn’t just affect your mouth – it can cause a myriad of other health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and respiratory problems.  In short, it’s nothing to mess with.

Here are some other dental issues common among seniors.

  • Root decay.
  • Tooth loss.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Changing taste buds.
  • Dark teeth

And sadly, just when all these dental health issues are looming the largest, just 22 percent of adults over 65 have dental insurance, according to the CDC.  And Medicare doesn’t cover dental care.  So what’s a senior to do?

Start with prevention.  No, it’s not too late to prevent some of these dental issues from cropping up.  Be sure to brush and floss daily.  Consult an expert if you aren’t sure you’re doing it right (because only one in ten people do!).  And beware — brushing and flossing too aggressively is just as bad as too gently.

Visit your dentist regularly if at all possible.  Regular check-ups and cleanings will help catch problems early.  And don’t forget to discuss any other unusual pain or sores associated with your mouth or tongue.

But wait — if you don’t have insurance, how are you going to do that?  Well, there are a couple of options that just might work for you.

Dental insurance

Shop around for most affordable dental insurance that will suit your needs.  By paying a monthly premium, you’ll be covered for check-ups, cleanings and X-rays along with partial coverage for cavities, crowns, root canals and more.

But be sure to read the fine print.  Many dental insurance plans have a waiting period of up to one year before they’ll cover major dental expenses – so don’t sign up because you need a crown and then find out you can’t have the work done any time soon.

Dental insurance doesn’t always cover “pre-existing conditions” that have been started – or even diagnosed – before you got the policy.

And be sure to weigh the pros and cons of each plan. Consider the cost of the premiums as well as the type of work that’s covered — at what percentage.  And don’t forget to find out the maximum amount they’ll cover each year.

Dental discount plans

Another popular option is to subscribe to a dental discount or dental savings plan.  Instead of monthly payments, members pay an annual fee and can visit any of the dentists in the network.  These providers offer their services to subscribers at a discounted rate.

With a discount plan, there’s no waiting period and no annual monetary cap.  You’ll even get a list of participating dentists and their charges for various procedures.

Just be sure that the work you may need is offered at a rate your can afford.

Other options:

  • Another possibility is participation in a clinical trial involving certain types of dental work.
  • And if you live in a city with a dental school or tech school, you can often see a dentist or hygienist in training at a reduced cost. They need to learn (don’t worry – there are instructors present!) and you need work done.  It’s a win-win.
  • Community centers, senior centers and the United Way are also good sources for referrals to reduced cost dental care.

No doubt about it — expensive dental care is no fun.  But taking care of your teeth is an important part of staying healthy well into your golden years.  And that’s something to smile about.

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