Oral care principles for older adults: Part 2

Learning outcomes:

  • understand the relevance of state of dependency on treatment planning for older adults;
  • be familiar with the risk management for older patients taking bisphosphonates, anti-angiogenic and anticoagulant medications; and,
  • recognise the need for atraumatic procedures in patients at risk of osteonecrosis.

In the first article in this series, general principles of treatment planning for older adults were addressed. However, beyond purely dental considerations, clinicians will need to consider the wider ramifications of the social and medical status of older adult patients. In medically compromised older adults, the response to oral pathogens is compromised by immunosenescence (i.e., age-related diminished immune response) and reduced saliva flow. Furthermore, any surgical treatment may be compromised if the patient is taking anticoagulants, anti-angiogenics, bisphosphonates or immunosuppressants. In this paper, the focus will be on the potential for medical morbidity to compromise oral health and some medication-related challenges for the dentist in providing dental care for these patients.

Relevance of frailty and dependence
Depending on their social and medical circumstances, older adults can be defined as ‘robust’, ‘frail’ or ‘dependant’. This, in turn, presents different levels of risk for oral disease and its treatment. A variety of frameworks that categorise older adults according to social and medical status are available. The Canadian Study of Health and Aging (CSHA) framework (Table 1) categorises older adults into levels of dependency, and this is useful when planning care, bearing in mind the status of the patient. The incidence of dental caries and periodontal disease tends to be higher in patients categorised in CSHA levels 4, 5, 6 and 7. Their risk of dental disease is elevated because:

  • their capability to undertake oral hygiene procedures diminishes as they become more frail, cognitively impaired and dependent;
  • they are reliant on carers to undertake oral hygiene procedures, particularly CSHA levels 6 and 7, where the patient is housebound or in residential care;
  • they frequently consume refined carbohydrate-laden food and have decreased consumption of fibre and protein;
  • they have increased comorbidity, and concurrent systemic chronic diseases; and,
  • they take daily multiple medications (polypharmacy), potentially leading to hyposalivation.

In the case of frail, immunocompromised older adults, the potential for respiratory pathogens to colonise dental plaque has been demonstrated, and there is significant risk of this precipitating bacterial pneumonia and death (El Solh et al., 2004). The potential for this to happen is much higher in patients with:

  • poorly controlled diabetes mellitus;
  • impaired swallowing reflex;
  • dementia/moderate to severe cognitive impairment;
  • Parkinson’s disease; and,
  • post stroke/cerebrovascular accident.

The patient shown in Figure 1 was an 81-year-old male patient who had an impaired swallowing reflex following a recent stroke and had moderately advanced cognitive impairment. His health had deteriorated rapidly over the previous 18 months. As shown, there was a high level of plaque around all remaining teeth, extensive bone loss and grade 2 mobility. He had not previously worn any form of denture.

Relevance of commonly prescribed medications to dental care
In all patients, it is vital to take a comprehensive social and medical history. This includes accurate details of any medications the patient may be taking. Bear in mind that some older patients may be cognitively impaired and not fully aware of what medications they are taking and the dosage. In such cases, contacting the patient’s general medical practitioner is advised.
Many older patients at risk of cardiovascular disease take medications that compromise the pathways that control bleeding. These include:

  • anticoagulants, e.g., warfarin (Coumadin), and novel anticoagulants/direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs), e.g., rivaroxaban (Xarelto) and dabigatran (Pradaxa); and,
  • medications that interfere with aggregation of blood platelets, e.g., clopidogrel (Plavix) or aspirin.

Patients likely to be taking these medications include those with a history of:

  • stroke/cerebrovascular accident;
  • myocardial infarction;
  • ischaemic heart disease;
  • heart valve surgery; and,
  • renal dialysis.

This is particularly relevant if planning surgical procedures such as dental extractions. Care must also be exercised when administering inferior dental block anaesthesia, as the risk of haematoma is elevated when administering the anaesthetic.
The risk of prolonged bleeding is elevated in cases of more invasive procedures (e.g., multiple extractions, elevation of mucoperiosteal flaps, placing of dental implants), than more minor procedures (e.g., uncomplicated single extractions). If the patient is only taking this medication (e.g., heparin) in the short term, it is sensible to delay surgical procedures for a period of time after the patient stops taking the medications and their blood clotting returns to normal (as measured by the international normalised ratio (INR)). In cases where the medication is being taken long term, then it is recommended to liaise with the patient’s medical team.
The patient should not be asked to stop their medication without guidance, and this should only be considered if there is a high risk of bleeding with invasive surgical procedures, e.g., surgical extraction. Warfarin, which is a vitamin K antagonist, has a five- to seven-day half-life, whereas the active life of DOAC medications is much shorter.
Accordingly, if required, the timeframe between stopping the medication and undertaking an invasive surgical procedure will be longer if the patient is taking warfarin. Details of risk management when surgical treatment is needed are given in Table 2.

Medication-related osteonecrosis of the jaw (MRONJ)
Medication-related osteonecrosis of the jaw (MRONJ) is the term used to describe the failure of bone to heal post surgical procedures, and such a diagnosis is made when healing of bone post surgery is delayed for more than eight weeks (Figure 2). It can be a very difficult condition to manage, as removal of necrotic bone may result in a new cycle of adjacent bone becoming necrotic. MRONJ is associated with drugs taken to manage /prevent bone metastases related to malignant disease and osteoporosis (Table 2). These drugs impede osteoclasts and vary significantly in duration of action, with the bisphosphonate family of drugs (e.g., Fosamax) having a half-life of 10 years, and antiresorptive monoclonal antibodies (e.g., Prolia) having a half-life of approximately six months.
The clinician needs to determine how long the patient has been taking one of these medications and, if the patient is no longer taking the medication, how long ago was the most recent dose. In this regard, the family of drug is important, as the risk of MRONJ is less if the drug taken has a short half-life. The clinician needs to be aware of the risk when planning dental care, and take steps to mitigate this risk depending on the risk stratification of the patient. This includes:

  • avoiding surgical procedures if possible – retaining structurally compromised teeth or roots that are not infected; or,
  • if it is not possible to avoid surgical procedures, then:
    • improve oral hygiene before the surgical procedure;
    • use antibacterial mouthwashes before the procedure;
    • perform atraumatic surgical technique; and,
    • use surgical wound closure to cover exposed bone.

There is a dose-related risk, and the likelihood of MRONJ is approximately 100 times higher in patients taking high-dose medications for treatment of malignant disease than in patients taking medications for managing/preventing osteoporosis. This is because the doses are much higher and taken more frequently when used to manage malignant disease (e.g., multiple myeloma, prostate, breast, lung and kidney malignant tumours). Furthermore, they may also be taking a glucocorticoid, which is thought to further increase the risk of MRONJ.
The mode of administration of the drug, i.e., oral or intravenous, does not appear to influence the risk of MRONJ. Where patients are taking these drugs for management of osteoporosis, there is a chance that they will be taking the drugs over a prolonged period of time. Current guidelines suggest that risk levels for MRONJ with bisphosphonates rise if they are taken continuously for five or more years.

In cases with a high risk of developing MRONJ, preserving a compromised tooth is preferable to extraction. Figures 3a and 3b show an elderly male patient who has been taking bisphosphonate medication for more than five years. His mandibular right first molar (46) had been endodontically treated and restored with full coverage porcelain fused to metal crown some years previously.
This tooth had fractured with loss of the crown, and the prognosis for a replacement was limited due to loss of tooth structure. His medical history indicated that extraction of this tooth posed a high risk of MRONJ. Accordingly, a conservative approach to management was taken and the tooth was restored with a directly placed composite resin retained on a fibre-reinforced composite resin post. This restoration is still in place some three years after placement, and he continues to be reviewed.

References/further reading

  • El Solh, A.A., Pietrantoni, C., Bhat, A., Okada, M., Zambon, J., Aquilina, A., Berbary, E. Colonization of dental plaques: a reservoir of respiratory pathogens for hospital-acquired pneumonia in institutionalized elders. Chest 2004; 126 (5): 1575-1582.
  • FDI World Dental Federation. Oral health: caring for older adults. 2019. Available from: https://www.fdiworlddental.org/oral-health-caring-older-adults.
  • Scottish Dental Clinical Effectiveness Programme. Management of Dental Patients taking Anticoagulant or Antiplatelet Drugs (2nd ed.). 2022. Available from: https://www.sdcep.org.uk/published-guidance/anticoagulants-and-antiplatelets/.
  • Scottish Dental Clinical Effectiveness Programme. Oral Health Management of Patients at Risk of Medication Related Osteonecrosis of the Jaw. 2017. Available from: https://www.sdcep.org.uk/published-guidance/medication-related-osteonecrosis-of-the-jaw/.

Finbarr Allen
BDS PhD MSc FDS (Rest Dent) RCPS
Finbarr is Professor/Consultant in Prosthodontics
and Oral Rehabilitation in Univerity College Cork.