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Dentists Screen for Nutritional Problems in Older Adults

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Few older Americans know the signs that they or a loved one are at risk for poor nutritional health, says a Chicago dentist.

"As we age, one of the greatest problems in maintaining adequate nutrition is directly related to the condition of the oral cavity," says Trucia Drummond, D.D.S., a general dentist. "The mouth is a kind of barometer or mirror of the entire body. Color, textural and physical changes in the tongue, oral mucosa and lips, as well as actual lesions of the mouth, cracking of the lips and corners of the mouth, and problems with salivary gland function can all signal potential nutritional problems in older patients."

People age 50 years and older account for 30 percent of the population today. According to statistics from the Nutrition Screening Initiative, a cooperative effort by the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Dietetic Association and the American Council on Aging, nearly 85 percent of the elderly have a nutrition-related problem.

"Tooth loss, mouth pain or other oral problems such as ill-fitting dentures or poor periodontal health can seriously affect older Americans' nutritional health," says Dr. Drummond. Because they see their patients regularly, dentists and members of the dental team are on the frontlines in terms of screening for nutritional problems in older people."

Dentists can refer a patient with nutritional problems to other health care professionals for treatment. According to Dr. Drummond, dentists can and should conduct nutritional assessments of older patients, including complete medical histories, social histories -- because cultural and socioeconomic factors impact food selection -- dietary intake assessment, and laboratory tests to confirm the diagnosis. Many dentists work with nutritionists who perform these duties.

"There is no such thing as a geriatric dental specialty," says Dr. Drummond. "But there are many dentists who gear their offices for the treatment of older patients. Some patients may prefer to go to one of these offices where the dentist works exclusively with patients in their age group."

There's no reason to suffer the consequences of poor nutrition, concludes Dr. Drummond. "Ask your dentist or health professional for help in improving your own or a loved one's nutritional health. It will improve your quality of life and make the golden years more fun and productive."