Special to The Newnan Times-Herald by Michelle Andrews
Aging can take a toll on teeth, and for many older people paying for dental services, it’s a serious concern because they can't rely on their Medicare coverage.
Low-income seniors, in particular, are struggling. More than a third with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level – about $23,000 annually – had untreated tooth decay between 2011 and 2014, according to an analysis of federal data by the American Dental Association.
Local experts who work with the senior population said that most Medicare plans only offer reimbursement for preventative services, and the amounts are usually between $150-$200.
Traditional Medicare does not offer any dental service unless it's related to services received in a hospital. Many seniors must pay for their dental procedures out-of-pocket, but many still do not cover dentures.
In a way, older people are victims of dentistry's success. Regular visits to the dentist, along with daily tooth brushing and water fluoridation, have all contributed to improvements in oral health. In the first half of the 20th century, by the time people reached their 30s or 40s, many had already lost all their teeth, Helgeson said. Today, more than 60 percent of people in nursing homes still have at least one tooth.
But teeth need tending. Without regular dental care, tooth problems can cause pain and limit how much and what type of food people are able to eat. Similarly, gum disease can loosen teeth and allow bacteria to enter the body. A growing body of research has linked treating periodontal disease with lower medical costs for diabetes and heart disease, among other conditions.
People's lives are affected in other ways by their oral health.
"You use your mouth to eat and kiss and smile and interact socially," said Dr. Judith Jones, a professor of dentistry at Boston University. "It's a source of great embarrassment and suffering for many adults without access to care."
With limited income and no insurance, seniors may skip visiting the dentist regularly, even though many report that their mouths are dry and painful and they have difficulty biting and chewing, not to mention avoiding smiling and social interaction if they have missing or damaged teeth.
Even trying to purchase private dental insurance, which typically covers a few thousand dollars' worth of dental care, may not provide good value, said Marko Vujicic, vice president of the American Dental Association's Health Policy Institute. "When you add up the premiums and copays, for the vast majority of adults it's not worthwhile to have dental insurance," he said.
Seniors with limited means have few options for help affording dental care. Federally qualified health centers may provide geriatric dental services on a sliding-fee scale based on income.
For local resources for help for dental services, visit http://www.freedentalcare.us/ci/ga-newnan
Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Kandice Bell contributed to this article.