Keep Your Teeth and Keep On Smiling as You Age
by Amy Scholten, MPH
Tooth decay can happen later life, even with ongoing dental care. However, proper care of teeth and gums helps older adults keep all or most of their teeth. Here is how:
Proper Dental Care
Most tooth loss is caused not by cavities, but by gum disease. Gum disease happens when bacteria enter spaces between teeth and gums. The bacteria forms into a coating called plaque. Plaque can cause the gums to become inflamed. Inflammation in the gums eventually eats away at structures that hold teeth in place. It has also been linked to heart disease, certain cancers, and respiratory diseases.
To prevent gum disease, brush and floss your teeth regularly. This means brushing at least twice per day or after each meal. Use a fluoride toothpaste. Floss at least once per day.
Manual and powered toothbrushes both work well to get rid of plaque. If you use a manual toothbrush, use one with soft-bristles. Be sure to brush the back, front, and bottom of all teeth. Also brush your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Get a new toothbrush every 2 to 3 months.
If you have problems grasping a toothbrush, try a powered toothbrush or:
There are also companies that make manual toothbrushes for people with grasping problems.
It is also important to floss at least once per day. Flossing removes plaque between the teeth and below the gum line. When flossing, gently ease the floss between the teeth. Rub the floss gently along the side of each tooth and below the gum line. Be sure to floss behind the back of the rear teeth as well.
If you have very tight teeth or many fillings, floss can catch and tear. If so, try using waxed dental floss or dental tape. If you have problems handling the floss, tie the dental floss in loops or try using a commercial floss holder.
Mouthwashes help reduce bacteria levels that cause gum disease. They help remove plaque and food pieces that were missed by brushing and flossing.
Getting Regular Exams and Cleanings
Brushing and flossing help a lot but do not remove all of the plaque. For this reason, it is important to see the dentist at least 1 to 2 times per year for a cleaning. The dentist can completely remove the plaque and check for tooth decay and gum disease.
The risk of serious mouth diseases, such as oral cancer, increases with age. Have your dentist check any swelling, sores, or changes you notice in your mouth, jaw, cheeks, throat, tongue, or lips.
Fluoride may help maintain healthy teeth and prevent tooth decay in adults. Choose toothpastes and mouthwashes with fluoride. In some communities, fluoride is also added to drinking water.
Many older adults have low amounts of saliva. This can be due to certain health problems or medicines. A dry mouth can lead to tooth decay. To reduce the dryness, try sucking on sugar-free candy or chewing sugar-free gum. If that does not work, ask your dentist about artificial saliva and oral rinses.
Starting proper tooth care later in life is better than never. However, it may not fully prevent the loss of teeth due to poor tooth and gum care earlier. If you do lose one or more teeth, it is important to replace them. Replacing teeth can help prevent problems with your remaining teeth. Depending on which and how many teeth are lost, tooth replacement may mean:
Bridges are artificial teeth. They attach to remaining healthy teeth—next to where a tooth or teeth have been lost or removed. Bridges can either be attached permanently or are removable.
Dentures are artificial teeth that attach to gums with an adhesive. They are used when most or all of your teeth are lost or removed. Today's dentures are much more effective, comfortable, and appealing than in the past. If you do wear dentures, practice proper denture and gum care. This includes regular dental exams.
Artificial tooth implants are an option for some people. Implants attach directly to the jawbone. They are maintained like natural teeth. Implants are best for those without much tooth loss—or loss of bone below the missing teeth.
As we get older, teeth tend to become discolored and stained. There are several options to improve how your teeth look. Consider professional teeth bleaching or commercial tooth whitening products. For severely discolored or stained teeth, ask your dentist about veneer and bonding. Veneer is tooth-colored material that is bonded to the teeth. Bonding paints a tooth-colored material onto your teeth.
Take Time for Your Teeth
You may be focused on taking care of other parts of your body. However dental care is important too. Paying attention to your teeth is a small price to pay for a healthy smile.
Academy of General Dentistry
Mouth Healthy—American Dental Association
Canadian Dental Association
The Canadian Dental Hygienists Association
Flossing. Mouth Healthy—American Dental Association website. Available at: https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/f/flossing . Accessed October 8, 2021.
Fluoride for the prevention of dental caries. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/fluoride-for-prevention-of-dental-caries. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Gum disease information. American Academy of Periodontology website. Available at: https://www.perio.org/consumer/gum-disease.htm . Accessed October 8, 2021.
Healthy habits. Mouth Healthy—American Dental Association website. Available at- https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/adults-over-60/healthy-habits. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Senior oral health. American Dental Hygienists' Association website. Available at: https://www.adha.org/resources-docs/7255_Senior_Oral_Health.pdf . Accessed October 8, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 10/8/2021
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