Gone are the days of false teeth being inevitable. More people are keeping their natural teeth to a much older age, which has presented dentists and their patients with a new set of challenges. There are factors which are unique to the mature mouth, and treating it the same way you did when you were 21 is likely no longer appropriate. Here's some of the changes you can expect to see as your teeth age, and what you can do to minimise problems.
Watch the snacks
I've seen through my time in dental practice that some people suddenly start experiencing widespread tooth decay once they retire. The main change seems to be the little bits of sugar throughout the day that don't amount to much on their own, but add up to a lot. Remember that caries, (tooth decay), is related to the frequency of sugar intake, not the total amount. Every cup of tea or coffee with a teaspoon of sugar, and the accompanying biscuit or cake, can result in your teeth being in a perpetual state of demineralisation. Ordinarily there should be a balance between the "acid attack" your teeth undergo, (when the sugar you eat is turned into acid by your resident oral bacteria), and then the remineralisation when your saliva hardens your teeth up again between snacks. If you're consuming sugar at regular intervals throughout the day, your teeth never get a chance to recover. The demineralisation becomes full blown caries, resulting in the need for fillings or even more extensive treatment.
Many people find their saliva quantity and quality reduces as they age. This can be due to many factors, but is often related to medications and common health problems amongst the ageing population. These include, but are not limited to, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety, insomnia, sleep apnoea... the list goes on. These general health problems need to be controlled for your general wellbeing, so often a reduced saliva capacity has to be managed in ways other than stopping medications. Always follow your medical doctor's advice, but be sure to also discuss with your dentist how your general health is affecting your mouth.
Getting long in the tooth
Gingival recession, when the gums appear to "shrink" and expose more tooth, creates the appearance of teeth looking longer. That's where the phrase comes from, but it's not necessarily part of the natural ageing process. Recession can be a result of gum disease, (periodontitis), or from brushing too vigorously. Either way, it's usually a slow process so only becomes evident after years and years, hence is seen more frequently in older people. Once the gums have receded, the root of the tooth becomes exposed instead of being covered in gum tissue. Unlike the crown of the natural tooth, the root is not covered in hard enamel. It's much easier for root surfaces to wear and decay, so thorough but gentle cleaning is important.
Protecting your ageing smile
So what can you do to make sure your mouth ages gracefully?
- Be careful about sugary snacks, try to limit anything sweet to meal times only. That way your saliva has a chance to remineralise your teeth before you eat again.
- Make sure your general health is good. Being in good health generally means there's less need for saliva-reducing medications, and less risk of chronic disease.
- Brush with an extra soft or sensitive toothbrush, so you can effectively remove plaque without damaging the delicate root surface of your teeth.
- Visit your dentist more frequently for check-ups. Once a year may have cut the mustard when you were in your twenties, but it may be wise to increase to as often as every 3 months if you find your oral health is deteriorating. Your dentist can prescribe specific preventative measures to suit the individual needs of your mouth as you age, and catch any problems early before they become disasters.