One of the more dreaded signs of growing older for most people is the loss of teeth. Bone loss and gum recession usually cause teeth to loosen and then eventually to fall out. The process starts in mid-life and by 65, 25% of all Americans are completely toothless. Dental work done decades ago (caps and crowns) may also contribute to gum disease. The caps may become loose over time and create a pocket for bacteria to fester. Diabetes, smoking, and poor nutrition accelerate tooth loss. The rapid rise in the population of senior citizens 65 and in good health otherwise has made a formerly rare procedure more common.
Dental implants are expensive (several thousand dollars per teeth). In answer to a question about Medicare funding for dental implants, Joseph L. Matthews of caring.com writes, “The only way that Medicare might pay for dental implants was if they were part of a larger reconstruction of the mouth or jaw, following an injury or disease to the tissue or bones of the mouth or jaw. If it’s simply the replacement of bad or lost teeth, then Medicare will not pay anything. Medicare Part B can cover some treatment that involves a problem with tissue or bones of the mouth and jaw, if that care could be considered “medical” rather than “dental.” This is true even if the procedure is performed by a non-physician oral surgeon, if it’s the kind of treatment that physicians (M.D.s) also perform.”
The cost and time commitment aside (an implant plus a bone graft requires many visits spread out over months), many dentists encourage otherwise healthy individuals to get implants. The most important reason is nutrition; being able to chew food, especially meat and vegetables is preferrable over shakes and mushy starches. A healthier diet translates into a stronger body. Another reason is the confidence that comes with being able to smile and chew food in social settings. A third reason is the health benefits that come from a renewed commitment to dental hygiene. In this study, residents in nursing homes who practiced good hygiene were less likely to contract pneumonia. As people live longer, they will do a cost/benefit analysis of the procedure. Marketers tell us that baby boomers are more likely to pay the cost of dental implants in exchange for a better quality of life.