Twice a year since the time you were two, you’ve probably sat in a dentist’s chair as she poked and prodded your pearly whites. It’s easy to delay that semi-annual trip to the dentist as you age, especially if no new problems seem to be appearing. Unfortunately, teeth are not like wine, and they rarely get better with time. Here are five of the most common oral health concerns after 50.
Dehydration frequently causes “cotton mouth,” but there’s more to the story when age is factored in, says Dr Shehzad Sheikh of Dominion Dental Care. “The most important dental concern is xerostomia, or dry mouth. As we age, our bodies have less saliva than when we were younger — hence, less ability for the saliva to wash away the bacteria that sticks to the teeth, which can then begin to cause either periodontal (gum) issues or caries (cavities).”
Outside influences also can affect dry mouth, as dentist Kimberly McFarland DDS, MHSA, explains. “Dry mouth is often caused by medications or multiple medications people take, especially as they age.”
Dental cavities are as much a problem for adults as they are for candy-laden children. Sheikh says, “As an adult, most caries are ‘recurrent’, meaning that they occur around restorations that have already been placed. This means that old fillings and crowns can begin to break down, or the tooth structure itself around the old fillings and crowns can begin to break down, causing the potential loss of the tooth.” Sheikh says fluoride use, regular visits to the dentist, and regular flossing and brushing are the best preventive measures.
Sometimes, oral troubles develop for some time below the surface before they come to our attention. McFarland explains, “Although periodontal disease (loss of the supporting bone around the teeth) may have been going on for years, the patient may not be aware of her condition until she is older, and the teeth become loose or start to fall out. Generally, there is no pain associated with periodontal disease. The teeth simply become loose and fall out. Therefore, patients should see their dentist and hygienist regularly for care.”
Clenching and grinding
Bad habits such as nighttime or daytime teeth grinding or clenching can do a number on your teeth. “Young teeth are considered to be strong but over time the teeth begin to wear down,” says Dr Sheikh, “As we age, this wear can cause teeth to fracture, which then necessitates further treatments such as root canals and crowns.”
To avoid further damage, Sheikh says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I recommend a nightguard to any patient who I suspect of having a traumatic or heavy bite from clenching and grinding,”
While mouth cancer isn’t very common, it is a significant concern for the older generation who smoked and drank long before the dangers were revealed. Facial plastic surgeon DJ Verret, MD, points out the consequences: “The biggest risk factor for oral cavity and airway cancers is smoking history. For both smokers and non-smokers who have lost their lower teeth, the jaw bone will shrink over time, which can lead to an increased risk of bone fractures.”
There is hope, though. Verret continues, “If patients get dental implants — not dentures but true implants — the lower jawbone will not atrophy over time. There is something about the forces exerted by the implants and not dentures that causes the mandible to think that it still has teeth.”