Nearly one in five older adults has an untreated cavity. Do you?

Most people think one’s “­cavity-prone years” end in your teens. But guess what…that’s not true. 

Growing risk: Compared with earlier generations, older adults today are at greater risk for cavities because more are keeping their teeth. In the early 1970s, about 55% of adults ages 65 to 74 had at least some of their teeth. Now, 87% do. What about those over age 75? About three-quarters still have some of their teeth. The scary part is that about one in every five adults over age 65 has at least one untreated cavity, which can lead to tooth loss and other harms. 

5 cavity traps—and solutions

There’s a lot you can do to prevent cavities as you grow older. Here’s a no-­brainer: If you’re a smoker, your dental health gives you just one more reason to quit—tobacco increases risk for tooth decay. Other cavity promoters…

Dry mouth. A steady supply of saliva helps fight cavities by washing away food particles and coating your teeth with minerals such as calcium and phosphate. Hundreds of medications, however, contribute to inadequate saliva, also known as dry mouth. 

Common culprits: Drugs used for pain, high blood pressure, depression and bladder control. Dry mouth also is common in people with diabetes and those undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer. 

Self-defense: If you are taking a ­medication that causes dry mouth, ask your doctor about alternatives, ­including nondrug approaches. Also: Be sure to drink plenty of water. Sugar-free dry-mouth lozenges, such as TheraBreath, Biotène and Act Dry, can help but aren’t a cure. (Lozenges with sugar increase your risk for cavities.)

Acid reflux. When stomach acid backs up into your mouth, it can erode tooth enamel, setting the stage for decay. 

Self-defense: If you have heartburn or bad breath or notice a sour taste in your mouth after eating, ask your doctor whether you could have acid reflux and, if so, get it treated. 

Receding gums. Tooth decay at the gum line is common with age because so many older adults have gum disease. As gum tissue gradually pulls away from teeth, pockets can form, creating a breeding ground for the bacteria that damage teeth. Even people who took excellent care of their teeth in younger years may brush and floss less often or less thoroughly because of physical challenges, such as arthritis. 

Self-defense: Be sure to brush twice daily and floss at least once daily. Consider using an electric toothbrush to assist with effective brushing.

Also: Consider using a toothpaste that contains “remineralizing” agents, such as stannous fluoride, sodium fluoride and calcium phosphate. These ingredients can bond to weakened enamel, strengthening teeth and creating an extra shield against decay. If your gums have receded, these products help prevent cavities on vulnerable surfaces.

Sugary and acidic drinks. Sweet drinks, such as soda, bottled tea and juice, are among the greatest threats to your teeth. In addition to large doses of sugar, many such drinks also contain high levels of corrosive acid. Even many unsweetened drinks, such as flavored mineral waters and teas, are acidic. 

Self-defense: Make water your go-to beverage. When you do indulge in a favorite sweet drink, have it with a meal, then swish with plain water. 

Processed foods. A diet heavy on processed foods is, by default, heavy on sugars and acid and low in nutrients that support a healthy mouth. 

Self-defense: Avoid processed foods, and opt for whole, nutrient-packed foods. Emphasize crunchy fruits and vegetables, such as apples, carrots and celery, that help remove food particles and promote saliva production. 

Important: Some adults may cut back on dental visits when they retire, lose employer-paid dental insurance and learn that routine dental care is not covered by Medicare. Don’t do that. Get cleanings and exams at least twice yearly. If you have periodontal disease, you may need four visits. Stand-alone private dental plans and some Medicare Advantage plans cover such services.