Cost Getting in the Way of Dental Health

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Most Americans value a healthy smile and understand that dental care is linked to their overall physical well-being and health. Yet many older adults skip going to the dentist because of the expense, putting them at risk for more serious health issues.

A recent AARP survey found that eight in ten adults over age 45 believed regular dental visits are just as important as physical checkups. Most wanted to maintain healthy teeth and gums as they age. Nearly all respondents age 45 and over (92%) considered oral health extremely or very important. Still, 38 percent of respondents said they had not seen a dentist or dental hygienist in a year or more, and 12 percent had not seen a dentist in more than five years. The survey found that men were more likely than women to have gone without seeing a dentist in five or more years.

Expense was the biggest barrier.

Among those who delayed or did not get dental care, about half said it was because of cost and about one-third cited lack of insurance. One-fifth of respondents said that time concerns were a factor, and more than two-fifths (42%) of midlife and older adults were somewhat to extremely concerned about being able to pay their dental bills in the next year.

About one in three respondents said that their dental issues have been painful or caused problems with eating or chewing. Low-income adults were more likely to suffer from dental issues than those who earn more than $50,000 a year.

Four in ten adults age 45 and older (40 percent) reported having no dental coverage. While Medicare does not cover commonly needed oral health procedures (routine cleanings, fillings for cavities, or tooth extraction), 66 percent of midlife and older adults were in favor of adding a dental benefit to Medicare, even if their costs would increase, the survey revealed.

Many Americans, in fact, are misinformed when it comes to Medicare’s lack of dental benefits. Although Medicare does not cover most dental services, nearly one in five respondents ages 45 to 64 who believed they would get dental insurance when they turn 65 think they will get the coverage through basic Medicare.

While six in ten respondents said they have dental insurance, just 49% of those earning less than $50,000 per year have coverage, compared to 67% among those earning more. Among those with dental coverage, more than four in ten said they get dental coverage separately from their health insurance.

Of those who report having a “regular dentist or dental office,” a large majority said they use a private dental office rather than a dental chain store or clinic.

AARP conducted the phone survey in October 2018 using a national sample of 1,537 adults over age 45.

Source: Keenan, Teresa A. A Look at Dental Health. Washington, DC: AARP Research, September 2019.

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