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Older Adults Delayed Dental Visits More Than Any Other Care During the Pandemic

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While older Americans have long faced barriers to care, it’s no surprise that lockdowns and restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated numerous medical and dental conditions experienced by this patient population. Further compounding the situation, older adults must often contend with a lack of dental coverage, inadequate transportation, difficulty navigating the healthcare system, and other challenges related to care. To better understand these issues, the Boston-based nonprofit CareQuest Institute for Oral Health has issued a new report that explores the pandemic’s effects on the oral health of the country’s seniors. 

The research brief, “Many Older Adults Delayed Dental Care During the Pandemic,” analyzes responses from three surveys of Medicare participants conducted by federal health officials. The data reveal the pandemic led to delays in healthcare, especially dental services, in this patient demographic. Key findings include:

  • In 2020, more than one in five Medicare participants — 13 million people — delayed some form of healthcare due to disruptions caused by COVID-19
  • Among older adults who put off healthcare, 44% (5.7 million people) delayed dental services more than any other type of care
  • Patterns in delaying oral healthcare differed by race and ethnicity. Between summer and fall of 2020, when the trend of avoiding dental care showed signs of slowing in Hispanic and white seniors, the percentage of Black Medicare participants who delayed care increased from 36% to 45%

The authors suggest that postponing care will likely result in a spike in oral disease among older adults. Furthermore, these delays will almost assuredly result in disease that is more severe and, therefore, more costly and difficult to treat. Advocating for the inclusion of dental benefits under Medicare to help address these issues, the institute notes that a poll it conducted in 2021 shows eight in 10 voters favor adding dental services to Medicare. It also reports that more than 26 million Medicare beneficiaries lack coverage for oral healthcare.

While the brief examines the repercussions of delayed care and potential solutions, there is reason for optimism. With SARS-CoV-2 vaccinations and other mitigation measures helping to turn the pandemic into an endemic challenge, the widespread loosening of restrictions has already increased access to care — as well as patient confidence to seek professional oral health services.

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