Smile! There’s good news from the world of dentistry: Older Australians are keeping their teeth longer than ever before and the average number of teeth people retain into old age is increasing. But it is not all smiles. As people keep their teeth longer, there are more problems that are likely to arise which is why keeping up with regular dental visits is so important.
1. Tooth decay
Yes, people over 50 can and do get cavities. You can get them on the surfaces of teeth that have never been a problem before and around old fillings, crown and bridgework or at the root of your tooth. As you age and you get long in the tooth, the root of your tooth becomes softer and more exposed.
The Fix: You could try fluoride gels and rinses but if you want something more natural then you need to be consuming a mineral rich diet and getting plenty of vitamin D. Or ask your dentist about prescription gels or varnishes that you can have applied to your roots and teeth.
2. Dry mouth
Saliva protects us against tooth decay. But as you age, and are on medications or have certain health conditions then you may not produce enough saliva and your teeth may be at risk of decay and gum disease. The minerals calcium and phosphate present in saliva prevent demineralization, which helps to prevent cavities.
How do you know if you have dry mouth? You’ll have a sticky feeling in your mouth, trouble swallowing, dry throat and dry, cracked lips. You may notice a metallic taste in your mouth or persistent bad breath. You may or may not feel thirsty. Dry mouth is often caused by medications and as people age, they take more medications, which of course, increases the propensity of having a dry mouth. It can also result from smoking or from health problems that damage the salivary glands.
The Fix: If you have dry mouth, you should try to stimulate saliva production. You can sip water all day or chew sugar-free xylitol gum to help. Most times this isn’t enough to get enough saliva flow going and your mouth remains at risk. Your dentist can prescribe a prescription saliva substitute or recommend over-the-counter formulations for you to try that help get the saliva and moisture flowing again.
3. Gum disease
If your gums are swollen, red, or bleed easily, you’ve got gingivitis, an early form of gum disease that can progress and be dangerous. Untreated gum disease becomes periodontitis, which is when the gum pulls away from the tooth and creates pockets that can become infected. Gum disease unchecked and untreated, will cause the loss of bone in your jaw and eventually, the loss of the teeth themselves as your teeth get so loose they simply fall out.
Your risk for gum disease is higher the older you get especially if you have poor dental hygiene habits, have crowded teeth, have poor dentistry that needs attention, smoke, are on medications, have dry mouth, are post-menopausal or over 50.
The Fix: The best fix for this condition is regular dentist and hygienist visits. And by regular you may need to visit your dentist more frequently than the recommended twice a year so that your teeth can be cleaned and your inflamed, infected gums treated for the condition.
4. Grinding and clenching
This is not a problem that begins late in life, but it’s one whose effects might be most pronounced as you age. If you tend to grind your teeth or to clench them in your sleep, you may grind through the enamel to the dentin, which can cause pain and decay. Also, you can crack and split teeth that are heavily filled or weak and if you have crowns or bridges in your mouth, they may be damaged. Clenching and grinding tends to worsen with age as your teeth get more crowded and the bite misaligns. Older adults also tend to snore more or develop sleep apnoea which is also linked with teeth grinding.
The Fix: Your dentist can make you a night guard or sleep apnoea or anti-snoring orthotics to protect your teeth while you sleep and stop you from cracking your teeth and your dental work.
Dr Rachel H., Holistic Dentist, Australia
Rachel also blogs at Evolve Dental