As we get older, we become more susceptible to chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease or arthritis. We can also begin to see more problems with our teeth and gums.
Whether it's ourselves or an older loved one, oral health deserves a heightened focus as we age on prevention and prompt treatment. Here's what you can do to protect you or a family member's teeth and gums during the aging process.
Make accommodations for oral hygiene. Keeping your mouth clean of disease-causing plaque is important at any age. But it may become harder for someone getting older: Manual dexterity can falter due to conditions like arthritis or Parkinson's Disease. Older adults with decreased physical ability may benefit from larger gripped toothbrushes or those modified with a bicycle handle. Electric power brushes are another option, as are water irrigators that can do as effective a job of flossing as threaded floss.
Watch out for “dry mouth.” Older adults often develop chronic dry mouth due to saliva-reducing medications they might be taking. It's not just an unpleasant feeling: Inadequate saliva deprives the mouth of acid neutralization. As a result, someone with chronic dry mouth has a higher risk for tooth decay. You can reduce dry mouth by talking with your doctor about prescriptions for you or a family member, drinking more water or using saliva boosting products.
Maintain regular dental visits. Regular trips to the dentist are especially important for older adults. Besides professional cleanings, dentists also check for problems that increase with aging, such as oral cancer. An older adult wearing dentures or other oral appliances also needs to have them checked periodically for any adverse changes to fit or wear.
Monitor self-care. As long as they're able, older adults should be encouraged to care daily for their own teeth. But they should also be monitored in these areas, especially if they begin to show signs of decreased mental or physical abilities. So, evaluate how they're doing with brushing and flossing, and look for signs of tooth decay or gum disease.
Aging brings its own set of challenges for maintaining optimum dental health. But taking proactive steps and acting quickly when problems arise will help meet those challenges as they come.
If you would like more information on dental care for older adults, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Aging & Dental Health.”
For generations, dentures have helped people avoid the dire consequences of total teeth loss. Now, implant technology is making them even better.
Composed of life-like prosthetic teeth fixed within a plastic or resin gum-colored base, dentures are manufactured to fit an individual patient’s mouth for maximum fit, comfort and performance. But dentures also have a critical drawback—they can’t stop bone loss in the jaw.
Bone is constantly regenerating as older cells dissolve and then are replaced by newer cells. In the jawbone, the forces generated when we chew travel through the teeth to the bone and help stimulate this new cell growth. When teeth are missing, though, the bone doesn’t receive this stimulus and may not regenerate at a healthy rate, resulting in gradual bone loss.
Dentures can’t transmit this chewing stimulus to the bone. In fact, the pressure they produce as they rest on top of the gums may actually accelerate bone loss. Over time then, a denture’s once secure and comfortable fit becomes loose.
In the past, most patients with loose dentures have had them relined with new dental material to improve fit, or have new dentures created to conform to the changed contours of the jaws. But implant technology now offers another alternative.
Implants are in essence a tooth root replacement. Dentists surgically implant a titanium metal post directly into the jawbone that naturally attracts bone cells to grow and adhere to it over time (a process called osseointegration). This not only creates a secure and lasting hold, it can also stop or even reverse bone loss.
Most people know implants as single tooth replacements with a porcelain crown attached to the titanium post. But a few strategically placed implants can also support either removable or fixed dentures. Removable dentures (also called overdentures) usually need only 3 or 4 implants on the top jaw and 2 on the bottom jaw for support through built-in connectors in the dentures that attach to the implants. A fixed bridge may require 4-6 implants to which they are permanently attached.
There are pros and cons for each of these options and they’re both more expensive than traditional dentures. In the long run, though, implant-supported dentures could be more beneficial for your bone health and hold their fit longer.
According to Forbes Magazine, Kylie Jenner is the world's youngest billionaire at age 22. Daughter of Caitlyn (Bruce) Jenner and Kris Jenner, Kylie is the founder and owner of the highly successful Kylie Cosmetics, and a rising celebrity in her own right. But even this busy CEO couldn't avoid an experience many young people her age go through each year: having her wisdom teeth removed.
At around 10 million removals each year, wisdom teeth extraction is the most common surgical procedure performed by oral surgeons. Also called the third molars, the wisdom teeth are in the back corners of the jaws, top and bottom. Most people have four of them, but some have more, some have fewer, and some never have any. They're typically the last permanent teeth to come in, usually between ages 17 and 25.
And therein lies the problem with wisdom teeth: Many times, they're coming in late on a jaw already crowded with teeth. Their eruption can cause these other teeth to move out of normal alignment, or the wisdom teeth themselves may not fully erupt and remain fully or partially within the gums (a condition called impaction). All of this can have a ripple effect, decreasing dental function and increasing disease risk.
As Kylie Jenner has just experienced, they're often removed when problems with bite or instances of diseases like tooth decay or gum disease begin to show. But not just when problems show: It's also been a common practice to remove them earlier in a kind of “preemptive strike” against dental dysfunction. But this practice of early wisdom teeth extraction has its critics. The main contention is that early extractions aren't really necessary from a medical or dental standpoint, and so patients are unduly exposed to surgical risks. Although negative outcomes are very rare, any surgical procedure carries some risk.
Over the last few years, a kind of middle ground consensus has developed among dentists on how to deal with wisdom teeth in younger patients. What has emerged is a “watch and wait” approach: Don't advise extraction unless there is clear evidence of developing problems. Instead, continue to monitor a young patient's dental development to see that it's progressing normally.
Taking this approach can lead to fewer early wisdom teeth extractions, which are postponed to a later time or even indefinitely. The key is to always do what's best for a patient's current development and future dental health.
Still, removing wisdom teeth remains a sound practice when necessary. Whether for a high school or college student or the CEO of a large company, wisdom teeth extraction can boost overall dental health and development.
If you would like more information about wisdom teeth and their impact on dental health, please contact us or schedule a consultation. To learn more, read the Dear Doctor magazine article “Wisdom Teeth: To Be or Not to Be?”
If you know anything about dental disease, then you know bacteria ranks high on the Usual Suspects list. Tooth decay gets its start from acid produced by bacteria; periodontal (gum) disease is often triggered by bacteria that infect the gums.
But the particular strains of bacteria that can cause dental disease are a small percentage of the 10,000-plus species inhabiting your mouth. The rest, numbering in the millions, are fairly benign—and some, as recent research is now showing, play a sizeable role in protecting your teeth and gums against other malicious bacteria, fungi and viruses.
Dr. Aaron Weinberg, a dental researcher at Case Western Reserve University, has been investigating these protective bacteria for many years. His research began with a scientific conundrum: although the mouth has one of the highest densities of bacterial populations, wounds in the mouth tend to heal quickly.
The answer, he believes, originates with human beta defensins (hBDs), substances produced by cells in the lining of the mouth that are natural antibiotics against disease. He has found that certain bacteria actually help stimulate their production.
This isn't just an interesting fact about the body's defenses and immune system. During his research, Dr. Weinberg was able to identify the agent within the bacteria that triggered hBD production. This has opened up a new line of research: The possibility that harnessing this agent might help assist in our treatment of infection by boosting the body's defensive capabilities.
For example, researchers have proposed including a form of the agent in toothpaste. Over time, this might stimulate hBD production and guard the mouth against the development of dental diseases like gum disease.
These possibilities all come from our increasing knowledge and understanding of the microscopic world around us, especially in our mouths. Bacteria are much more complex than we may have realized—not all are our enemies, and some are definitely our friends. Learning more may open up new ways to keep our teeth and gums healthy.
Tooth decay doesn't appear out of nowhere. It begins with bacteria, which produce acid that softens and erodes tooth enamel. Without adequate enamel protection, cavities can develop.
So, one of our prevention goals is to decrease populations of disease-causing bacteria. One way is to deprive them of carbohydrates, a prime food source, most notably refined sugar. That's why for decades dentists have instructed patients to limit their intake of sugar, especially between meal snacks.
Ironically, we're now consuming more rather than less sugar from a generation ago. The higher consumption impacts more than dental health — it's believed to be a contributing factor in many health problems, especially in children. Thirty years ago it was nearly impossible to find a child in the U.S. with type 2 diabetes: today, there are over 50,000 documented juvenile cases.
Cutting back isn't easy. For one thing, we're hard-wired for sweet-tasting foods. Our ancestors trusted such foods when there was limited food safety knowledge. Most of us today still have our "sweet tooth."
There's also another factor: the processed food industry. When food researchers concluded fats were a health hazard the government changed dietary guidelines. Food processors faced a problem because they used fats as a flavor enhancer. To restore flavor they began adding small amounts of sugar to foods like lunch meat, bread, tomato sauce and peanut butter. Today, three-quarters of the 600,000 available processed food items contain some form of added sugar.
Although difficult given your available supermarket choices, limiting your sugar intake to the recommended 6 teaspoons a day will reduce your risk for dental and some general diseases. There are things you can do: replace processed foods with more fresh fruits and vegetables; read food labels for sugar content to make better purchasing decisions; drink water for hydration rather than soda (which can contain two-thirds of your daily recommended sugar allowance), sports drinks or juices; and exercise regularly.
Keeping your sugar consumption under control will help you reduce the risk of tooth decay. You'll be helping your overall health too.
If you would like more information on the effect of sugar on health, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “The Bitter Truth about Sugar.”
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