When my kids were growing up, they hated going to the dentist. Between the sounds of the cleaning tools and the gross-tasting fluoride gels, it was a struggle to get them out the door when they knew it was time to get their teeth cleaned. And while their fears have mostly gone away as they’ve grown into adults, I’ve found that fear of the dentist still lingers in many of my patients. As adults, we often don’t think much about our teeth unless they’re bothering us, but waiting too long to take care of your oral health can spell disaster. With holiday sweets already making it into the mouths of many, I think it’s time to do a bit of a refresher on how to keep your teeth clean and your mouth healthy this holiday season.
Getting Older Can Be Hard on Your Mouth
As you get older, the habits of your youth can start to catch up with you, and the health of your teeth is no exception. About one in four adults over 65 in the U.S. have lost their teeth, making it hard for them to eat regular food. Bad oral hygiene like not brushing or flossing enough can be a major contributor, but bad habits like smoking and a poor diet can also affect your teeth and gums. Other health issues, like diabetes or heart disease, can also lead to problems in the mouth. Exactly how these diseases are linked isn’t always clear, but those who are sicker also tend to have more problems with their teeth.
Does that mean that bad teeth are just a part of getting older? Absolutely not. Most of the dentists I’ve talked to say that it’s entirely possible to have healthy teeth well into old age. But keeping those pearly whites takes time, attention, and care.
What You Should Be Watching For
There are a variety of common problems that older adults can face when it comes to the health of their teeth. First and foremost, adults can also end up with the same problems younger people have. Cavities, for example, aren’t just for kids who eat too much candy. They can happen at any age and can lead to the loss of your teeth if you’re not careful. Gum diseases like gingivitis (inflammation of the gums that surround your teeth) or the more severe periodontitis (infection of the gums and other tissues that support your teeth) can also affect older adults and lead to serious damage both to the teeth and to the tissues in the mouth. Finally, mouth and throat cancers, especially in those who smoke or use chewing tobacco, can be both disfiguring and deadly. These commonly show up as serious sores that won’t heal, patches of discoloration in the mouth, or masses.
Caring for Your Teeth
You’ve probably heard it a million times, but brushing and flossing are key players in keeping those pearly whites looking good. You should brush at least twice a day with a toothpaste that contains fluoride. There are lot of other frills companies put into toothpaste, but none of them matter as much as making sure fluoride is present since that’s the ingredient that prevents dreaded cavities. It’s also important to note that you should be using a soft toothbrush. There’s no good evidence that medium or firm toothbrushes clean any better and they can do some real damage to your gums by actually wearing them down.
Flossing is key for blocking the formation of cavities, but also works alongside brushing to help prevent gum disease. Both of them help remove plaque, which is essentially just a sticky collection of bacteria that builds up on and around the surface of your teeth. Unchecked, these bacterial colonies are responsible for cavities and also cause the inflammation that leads to different types of gum disease. Finally, quitting smoking is a great way to boost your oral health and lower your risk of many mouth cancers.
Why Diet Makes a Difference
Few people realize how profoundly our diets affect the health of our mouth. While eating healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help keep diabetes and heart disease away, they also protect our teeth from damage. The act of eating many fruits and vegetables, like apples or carrots, for example, helps to physically clean our teeth by removing some of that harmful plaque I mentioned. Many of the bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease also feed on the simple sugars present in junk food and sugary drinks. The more we replace unhealthy food and drink with water and healthier foods options, the less we feed bad bacteria and the better off our teeth will be. Indirectly, these foods also help keep us in better overall while steering clear of diseases like diabetes that can hurt the health of your mouth.
Getting to the Dentist Regularly and When Things Aren’t Right
We all know we should be seeing the dentist regularly for cleaning, but how often do you really follow that rule? One of the big problems I’ve seen that prevents people from getting good oral care is a change in insurance as they get older. Medicare, for example, may not cover dental health if you’re not part of a managed care plan. Fortunately, the new health exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act allow you to buy dental insurance, even if you have Medicare, so you can get the care you need
It’s important to visit the dentist regularly just to get your teeth cleaned and checked. The cleaning you get from the dentist’s office is a much deeper clean that helps to remove any build up you might be missing. I also always recommend asking your dentist to show you how to brush your teeth and floss properly. It might seem straightforward, but getting these skills right could be the difference between keeping your teeth and losing them.
Finally, don’t wait to go to the dentist if you think something might be wrong. Most tooth problems do better when they’re treated early.