14:10 PM

A [Dental] Wake Up Call for Baby Boomers

Guest Post by Dr. Michael Monopoli, DentaQuest Foundation Director of Policy and Programs

The baby boom generation has consistently enjoyed better health and better oral health than any previous generation. Thanks to community water fluoridation, fluoride toothpastes and having dental insurance as part of employer-sponsored health plans, this generation is the first where a majority will keep and maintain their natural teeth over their entire lifetime.

This is wonderful news, and the facts support it. CDC data shows that over the past decade, the number of adults missing all their natural teeth has declined from 31 percent to 25 percent for those aged 60 years and older. And more good news: Seventy percent of adults at or above the poverty level said they visited a dentist in the past 12 months (CDC Fact Sheet). This is a generation that cares about and values its good oral health.

But there’s a serious dental wake-up call on the horizon for this first wave of boomer retirees. Even with largely good oral health, today’s retiring adults are realizing they will have to plan to pay largely out of pocket for dental care to maintain their oral health beyond their working years.

Many have all of their teeth and received routine dental care through their lives. They are now struggling with the realization that Medicare generally doesn’t cover routine dental procedures, such as cleanings or fillings. Medicaid, the jointly-funded Federal-State health insurance program for low-income people, funds dental care for low income and disabled elderly in a few states, but reimbursements are low. Most dental plans that cover the necessary services to maintain good oral health are based on employment and these dental benefits are lost with retirement. Retirees now have to figure out how they can continue the level of dental care they enjoyed through their working lives, and will need to balance these expenses along with other important needs like food, housing, and the rest.

And to add insult to injury, over the past decade, the value of retirement funds and IRAs has been shrinking with the ups and downs of the economy. Some retirees are facing the fact that their retirement funds may no longer support the lifestyle they were used to or hoped for – including good preventive health services.

It’s not a comfortable feeling to have to decide what dental care you are willing to pay for in order to have good oral health -- especially when we know good oral health is an integral part of overall health.

This is one of the issues that was discussed by the new U.S. National Oral Health Alliance, leaders from dentistry, medicine, dental education and the dental industry, health advocates, policy makers and philanthropy at their first leadership colloquium in 2011. Without access to oral health care and prevention, our nation’s most vulnerable families are at high risk. Many middle class elders will begin to face dental issues that our nation’s most vulnerable families have faced for many years. Hopefully, this larger group will change the conversation.