With the introduction of modern dental techniques and the realization that we can keep our teeth, as we get older, more and more people are keeping the majority of their teeth for life. A healthy mouth has been shown to be related to improved general health and well-being, both from a physiological and psychological perspective.
However, with our patients keeping their teeth for life we are now seeing some new dental problems that did not previously exist when patients were having all their teeth out and dentures placed at an early age. The good news though, is with regular dental care, you should be able to keep your teeth and gums healthy for life.
As we do age certain dental problems become more common and we need to be aware of them so as to prevent their occurrence or at least reduce their effects:
As you get older you may find that you suffer from a dry mouth. This can be caused by several factors:
- Medications. Some medications cause a reduction in saliva flow as a side effect. Usually your pharmacist will alert you to this potential effect and suggest you tell your dentist when you next visit. This is also one of the reasons dentists will check your medical history when you come for your next visit.
- Illness. Certain diseases can cause a reduction in saliva flow.
- Aging. As we get older things just don’t often work as well as they once did.
Saliva is important because it helps to fight tooth decay by washing away the acids produced when we eat sugary foods. Saliva is also the first step in the digestive process, in that it contains enzymes that start to break down the food we eat and start the digestive process. Saliva also acts as a lubricant to moisten the lips, tongue and cheeks and thus minimizes ulcers and stop food sticking to our teeth.
So the effect of reduced saliva flow is usually an increase in tooth decay and gum problems.
The treatment is usually to try and increase the saliva flow with something like lemon drinks (the lemon helps to stimulate saliva production) or lemon drops. The use of an artificial saliva replacement may also help lubricate your mouth at mealtimes and can also be used between meals when you feel any discomfort from dry mouth.
It is also important to look at increasing your tooth protection through the use of fluoride treatments such as mouth rinses and high dose fluoride toothpaste.
We’ve all heard of the term "long in the tooth" and this relates to the common condition of the gum receding down along the tooth, thus giving the appearance that the tooth is actually getting longer. This causes several problems.
- Aesthetics. As your teeth get longer they don’t look as good and the new exposed area of tooth usually looks more yellow.
- Sensitivity. As the gum moves down and uncovers the root surface of the tooth, it is not as well protected and thus becomes more sensitive to temperature and sweet things.
- Increased decay. The root surface decays a lot more quickly than the top of the tooth.
- Food catching. As the gum moves down it can leave gaps between teeth, which catch more food and lead onto gum problems and the increased chance of decay.
Changes in Eating Habits
Some adults adopt new eating habits as they get older which can result in an increased consumption of sugary foods. Often this is related to the degeneration of our taste buds, so that we need more sugar to taste it, or to the fact that we have more time to drink sugared tea and coffee throughout the day. These habits can have disastrous effects on the teeth, increasing the chance of dental decay.
As you get older sickness or disease may make cleaning teeth more difficult, especially something like arthritis. There is now a good range of electric toothbrushes available, which makes cleaning much easier.
Wearing Away Teeth
In some adults, the appearance and function of teeth can suffer because of a continuous wearing away of the teeth. This can be the result of aggressive tooth brushing, using a hard toothbrush or using very abrasive toothpaste. It is best to see your dentist about this problem before it becomes too severe.
Increased Incidence of Pathology
Although only making up about 2 - 4 % of all cancers, oral cancers do exist and can cause death. There is an increased risk in patients who smoke and drink alcohol. Your dentist will check your oral tissues at each visit looking for any lesions or ulcers. If you notice a lump, ulcer or an area of redness that does not resolve in a short time you need to consult your dentist to have it checked out.
Many people think that once they have had their dentures made they are set for life or until it breaks. However, just as the rest of our body changes as we age so does our mouth. So although your denture may have once fitted perfectly, after about five to ten years chances are that it no longer fits very well and is probably causing harm to any remaining teeth you may have or damaging the gums and tissues. So it is important that you have them checked and adjusted regularly to minimize any problems.
Tooth loss and gum disease are not an inevitable part of the ageing process. The fact is, you can have control over your dental destiny. If you brush and floss every day and see your dentist regularly, you will improve your chances of maintaining healthy teeth and gums throughout your life.