Flossing can also be a challenge for older adults, she notes, but it’s important. Seniors who regularly floss have a significantly lower risk of developing gum disease, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Dental Research. If you find you no longer have the manual dexterity to floss successfully, consider using a tool like a floss holder or threader, a water flosser (a device that shoots out water to help clean between teeth and around dental implants and bridges) or an interdental brush (a tiny brush specially designed to clean between teeth).
The type of toothpaste you use is also very important. While any product that contains fluoride will help fight gum disease, look for one that contains stannous fluoride, which research shows is particularly effective, says Ross. Crest Gum Detoxify, Colgate Total SF and Parodontax Active Gum Repair are all good choices, she says.
See your dentist regularly
It’s very possible to have gum disease even if there are no warning signs, or just very subtle ones, like occasional bleeding after brushing, says Wolff. You should see your dentist at least once a year for a cleaning and thorough exam — though you may need to go more frequently, he notes. If you can’t afford to pay out of pocket — unfortunately, Medicare doesn’t cover most dental care — contact the Health Resources and Services Administration, which can refer you to a network of “safety net” clinics for people who qualify for reduced-cost care. Your local dental school may also run a clinic that provides low-cost care.
Recognize the early signs
If you notice persistent bad breath, or if your gums bleed — even a little bit — when you brush them or they’re red or swollen, see your dentist, stresses Wolff. These can all be early signals that something’s amiss in your mouth.
Consider mouthwashes and medications
If you are beginning to develop gum disease, your dentist can prescribe a mouthwash that contains the antibiotic chlorhexidine, such as Peridex, PerioChip or PerioGard.
Get the right treatment
If regular cleanings and home care aren’t enough to keep your gum disease in check, your dentist may refer you to a periodontist, a dentist who specializes in gum disease, for a more targeted treatment, says Ross. This could include:
- Scaling and root planning. This is a deep-cleaning, nonsurgical procedure that is done under local anesthesia to remove plaque and tartar from the gums and smooth out any rough spots on your teeth. “Smoothing out these spots helps remove bacteria and provides a clean surface for the gums to reattach to the teeth,” explains Ross.
- Gum surgery. During this procedure, which is also done under local anesthesia, the gums are lifted back and tartar is removed, says Ross. Sometimes the surrounding bone is also smoothed out, to limit the areas where disease-causing bacteria can hide. The gums are then reattached so that they fit snugly around your teeth, which “limits the areas where bacteria can grow,” adds Ross.
- Gum grafting. This is when a thin piece of tissue is taken from another place in the patient’s mouth — like the roof of the mouth — and attached to where gum tissue has receded.
Hallie Levine is a contributing writer and an award-winning medical and health reporter. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Health and Time, among other publications.