Keep Your Teeth and Keep On Smiling as You Age
True or false? You will ultimately lose some or all of your teeth, and there is nothing you can do about it.
The answer is false, even though tooth decay in later life is likely even with ongoing dental care. However, with good oral hygiene and proper dental care, seniors can retain all or most of their teeth. But the trick is that taking care of the gums is just as important as taking care of the teeth.
Most tooth loss is caused not by cavities, but by gum disease. Gum disease results when bacteria enter the crevices between teeth and gums, where they create plaque. The presence of plaque causes an immune reaction that causes the gums to become inflamed. The inflammatory process eventually eats away at the structures that hold teeth in place. Inflammation caused by gum disease has also been linked to heart disease, certain cancers, and respiratory diseases.
Gum disease can be prevented by thoroughly brushing and flossing your teeth regularly. This means brushing at least twice per day with fluoride toothpaste, or after each meal. Flossing should be done at least once per day. Studies have shown that manual and powered toothbrushes are equally effective in eliminating plaque.
If you do use a manual toothbrush, use a soft-bristled toothbrush. Be sure to brush the back, front, and bottom of all teeth. Also brush your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Replace your toothbrush every 2-3 months.
If you have a physical disability that makes grasping a toothbrush difficult, you may find a powered toothbrush easier to handle. Here are some other fixes as well:
- Attaching the brush to your hand with an elastic band.
- Lengthening the handle by attaching a Popsicle stick or tongue depressor.
- Attaching a sponge or small rubber ball to the handle to make it easier to grasp.
If you do not want to create your own special handle, there are companies that make manual toothbrushes for people with grasping problems.
In addition to brushing, flossing at least once per day is necessary to remove plaque that forms between the teeth and below the gum line. When flossing, be sure to gently ease the floss between the teeth, and rub the floss gently along the side of each tooth and below the gum line. Do not forget to floss behind the back of the rear teeth! If you have extremely tight teeth, or extensive fillings—on which floss can catch and tear—try using waxed dental floss or dental tape.
If you have trouble handling the floss, you can tie the dental floss in loops to make it easier to handle or try using a commercial floss holder.
Mouthwashes help reduce bacteria levels that cause gum disease by removing plaque and food particles that were missed by brushing and flossing.
Getting Regular Exams and Cleanings
Although brushing and flossing help greatly, they do not remove all of the plaque, especially the hardened plaque that is the main component of tartar. For this reason, you need to see the dentist at least 1-2 times per year for a cleaning to completely remove the plaque and to check for tooth decay and gum disease.
The risk of serious mouth diseases, such as oral cancer, increases with age. Therefore, it is important to have your dentist closely examine any swelling, sores, or discoloration you notice anywhere in your mouth, jaw, cheeks, throat, tongue, or lips.
Though not as effective as when used in childhood, drinking fluoridated water and brushing with fluoride toothpaste (and using fluoride mouthwash) as an adult may help maintain healthy teeth and prevent tooth decay.
The topic of fluoridated drinking water in adults is controversial, since some researchers believe it may negatively affect bone health. However, evidence is weak and it has not affected recommendations by any professional organizations. The benefits of fluoridated drinking water for public health far outweight any risks associated with it.
Last reviewedOctober 2013by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.