Higher rate of tooth decay for dementia sufferers

The oral health of older adults with dementia is significantly worse than for their non-dementia counterparts, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The Oral Health of Older Adults with Dementia surveys the oral health status of a randomly selected sample of older Australians with and without dementia in Adelaide over a one-year period.

Co-author Professor John Spencer, from AIHW's Dental Statistics and Research Unit, says that the study shows dementia sufferers were worse off for tooth decay, use of dentures, denture-related oral mucosal lesions, and plaque accumulation.

'At the beginning of the study, tooth decay was present in just under half of the dementia sufferers compared to 15.5% for the non-dementia group.

'This went up to 60% in the dementia group and 28.5% in the non-dementia group a year later, which shows just how quickly decay can establish itself in older patients', Professor Spencer said.

Professor Spencer also drew attention to the high levels of accumulation of dental plaque among dementia sufferers.

'These high plaque levels in dependent and frail individuals are of great concern, because accumulation of plaque over time on natural teeth and dentures places them at greater risk of developing aspiration pneumonia, which can sometimes be fatal.'

Significantly fewer dementia participants saw a dentist in the 12 months before the start of the survey, and during the one-year survey period itself. Although dementia sufferers exhibited high levels of tooth decay, in many cases carers were unaware of the severity of the problem.

'Even though many more dementia participants needed help with their oral hygiene care', said Professor Spencer, 'many exhibited resistive or combative behaviour during the care-giving process, with one-third refusing to open their mouths. Carers need training and support to improve the oral hygiene care for older adults with dementia.'

Also of considerable concern with the dementia group was decreasing use of fluoride from sources such as toothpastes.

7 April 2005

Further information: Professor John Spencer, DSRU, tel. 08 8303 5438, or mobile 0412 220 859; Jane Chalmers, University of Iowa, email

For media copies of the report: Publications Officer, tel. 02 6244 1032.