Haven’t been to the dentist in a while? It’s never too late to take charge of your dental health

If you’ve been skipping dental appointments, you’re not alone. About 100 million Americans don’t go every year, according to the American Dental Association.1 And 20% of adults ages 65 and older have either put off getting dental care or gone without it completely during the past 2 years, reports a recent study by the University of Michigan.2

Avoiding routine exams, especially when older, may lead to bigger issues. That’s when oral wear and tear may catch up. It can be harder to brush and floss well, and there’s a higher risk of tooth decay and oral cancer, says Dee Dee Meevasin, D.M.D, a family practice dentist in Las Vegas.

It might not seem like a big deal to skip a year or two. But when you do, some dental problems may get worse. But you may get back on track if you haven’t been going to the dentist regularly. Here’s how.

Why do some people avoid the dentist?

Seeing a dentist regularly may be hard for many reasons. Cost — whether copays or lack of insurance — can be an issue. So can fear, either of finding problems or of potential pain during the appointment. People may also avoid the dentist because they don’t want to feel judged.

A 2022 study published in the Journal of Oral Rehabilitation found that nearly half of the people surveyed said that going to the dentist makes them feel that way. Another 60% said that they worry their teeth are in bad shape, and 48% said that dental visits make them feel guilty for not taking care of their teeth.3

But getting regular care can help prevent both more teeth issues and higher costs in the long run.4 And most dentists are used to people’s fears or concerns, says Meevasin.

“We’re used to seeing patients that haven’t been in for a while. And we’re almost always focused on the solution rather than your current condition,” says Meevasin. “A great dentist shouldn’t be someone who judges you. It should be someone who encourages you to get on a path to oral health and helps come up with a plan to get you there.”

UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members with dental coverage can download the UnitedHealthcare® app to find dental care, manage plan details and more.

Why are routine dental visits so important?

Seeing a dentist regularly can prevent problems before they start. Or spot them early, when they’re easier to treat.4 When it comes to regular dental care, the general rule of thumb is to see a dentist every 6 months for a checkup and a cleaning. But depending on the condition of oral health, a person may have to go more frequently.

Periodontal disease, or gum disease, affects about 68% of people ages 65 and older, according to the CDC.5 “Ideally, patients with gum disease should come in every 90 days, because bacteria becomes destructive at that mark,” says Meevasin. “Six months should be the minimum.” Waiting any longer may make existing gum disease much worse.

The risk of oral cancer also increases as we get older.6 Dentists may help detect head and neck cancers during a routine exam by examining the face, neck, lips and inside of the mouth.7

5 tips for getting back in the dentist chair

If the thought of seeing a dentist is stressful, here are 5 steps to take to get back into the routine of regular visits.

1. Schedule an appointment

The first step is to book a dental exam and show up. “Even if you’re feeling anxious, just come in,” says Meevasin. Although price may be a concern, putting off a dental checkup may cost  more money down the road. Dental technology and patient financing have both made excellent care more affordable, notes Meevasin.

2. Be prepared

The dentist may ask about dental and medical history. Bring a list of any medications you take too.  

3. Plan enough time for your visit

“Patients who haven’t been for a checkup in a while typically take longer at their visit because it’s more comprehensive,” says Meevasin. That’s especially true if you see a new dentist.

4. Bring someone with you

Extra emotional support may be useful. A friend, caregiver or loved one may help make decisions and remind you of things you may want to discuss with the dentist.

5. Think about a reward afterward

Having something to look forward to may make the appointment better. Treat yourself when it’s done by grabbing coffee at your favorite cafe or watching a movie.

Routine dental care is important to your teeth and overall health. Already a UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage member with dental coverage? Sign in to your plan website to find a dentist and schedule an appointment.

Already a UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage member?

Routine dental care is important to your teeth and overall health. Have dental coverage? Review coverage and benefits and schedule an appointment today.