As unpalatable as it is to acknowledge, ageing is inescapable. And while it does come with certain benefits (increased happiness, improved emotional and social intelligence to name a few), we tend to focus more on the impact it has on our bodies (hello wrinkles, aches and pains and those ‘senior moments’).
But just as our bodies change with age, our teeth do too. Older teeth can discolour, weaken and indeed, fall out. That’s why, just as we take steps to keep our bodies and minds healthy as we get older, it’s important to pay attention to the changing needs of our oral health as well.
So, from receding gums to dry mouth, let’s take a look at how your teeth change with age and what you can do to maintain a healthy mouth for longer.
An increased risk of gum disease (and its associated conditions)
Although getting older doesn’t automatically mean you’ll develop gum disease (periodontitis), a global study found the highest rates in those aged between 60 and 64. This could be explained by the fact that gum disease takes time to develop. Older adults are also more likely to be taking medication that can cause dry mouth as a side effect. Saliva plays a key role in keeping our mouths healthy, making people who can’t produce enough of it more prone to gum disease.
Once gum disease has allowed to become established, not only can it lead to tooth loss, but it’s also been linked to a host of more serious conditions including diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia and some cancers.
Be fastidious with your dental hygiene, brushing thoroughly twice a day and flossing or using an interdental brush daily.
Just as at any age, older teeth benefit from regular check-ups. Keeping up-to-date with routine appointments mean any potential problems can be caught early.
A healthy diet is key to maintaining healthy gums. Foods rich in vitamin C and beta carotene (peppers, strawberries and green leafy vegetables) are especially gum-friendly, thanks to their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. A 2022 review of various studies concluded omega-3 fatty acids may have a positive impact on periodontitis, so make sure to eat plenty of omega-3 rich foods such as fish, flaxseed and walnuts.
You may also want to include some probiotic foods such as kefir and kimchi to help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your mouth.
More prone to tooth decay
A lifetime of biting, chomping and chewing will finally catch up with older teeth. This general wear and tear, plus the acidic foods you’ve consumed over the years will slowly erode the tooth’s enamel and make them more susceptible to decay and infection.
Root canal infections develop when bacteria in the mouth enter the centre of the tooth via chips or cracks or due to untreated tooth decay. Root canal treatment needs to be done to save the tooth and prevent the spread of infection. Seeing a specialist endodontist for the treatment will ensure it’s done to the highest standard. If the infection isn’t treated, the tooth will be lost and could lead to further complications and expense.
Another risk factor for decay is gum recession, which some people experience as they get older, including menopausal women. This is where the gum pulls away from the tooth, exposing the root and making it more vulnerable to decay.
See your hygienist for a professional clean as often as recommended.
Limit consumption of sugary foods and drinks.
Make an appointment with your dentist if you notice any early signs of decay or infection such as pain, bad breath or discolouration of the tooth
Use a toothpaste containing 1350 to 1500ppm of fluoride to strengthen tooth enamel.
Brush teeth with a soft-bristled brush using minimum pressure to prevent or reduce gum recession.
Teeth aren’t as white as they used to be
Despite dedicated brushing, foods you’ve enjoyed over the years will eventually reveal themselves in the form of discolouration and staining on those former pearly whites.
The thinning of enamel on our teeth as we age is often a factor too, as it exposes the darker dentin beneath.
It’s important to remember however, that yellow or discoloured teeth don’t necessarily mean they are full of decay (in the same way that gleaming white teeth don’t automatically equal healthy teeth). So, whether you choose to whiten your teeth or not is entirely a personal preference.
Depending on the level of staining or discolouration, tooth whitening in older adults may be harder to achieve, so it’s important to talk to your dentist about the best course of action. Never use over-the-counter products as they can cause damage to your teeth and gums – this is something best done under professional supervision.
Limit your consumption of teeth-staining foods, for instance, tea, coffee, red wine and tomato and turmeric-based foods.
Speak to your dentist about tooth whitening.
You can experience dry mouth
Saliva plays a crucial part in keeping our mouths and teeth healthy. Not only does it carry essential proteins and minerals, it neutralises acid from foods and removes bacteria, helping to protect against cavities and infections. Without it, we’re at greater risk of gum disease and tooth decay.
Although getting older doesn’t cause dry mouth (xerostomia), as we age we’re more likely to start medication for conditions such as high-blood pressure and cholesterol. These medications, along with many others, can cause dry mouth.
Women going through the menopause can also experience dry mouth, as well as people with diabetes.
Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Chew sugar-free gum to help stimulate saliva production.
Limit alcoholic, caffeinated and sparkling drinks.
Ask your dentist or pharmacist about treatments for dry mouth.
Maintain a good oral hygiene routine at home .
Your risk of oral cancer increases
Like with most cancers, the risk of developing mouth cancer steadily increases with age, with 64% of mouth cancers diagnosed in the over 60s. This is likely due to DNA cell damage caused by lifestyle and environmental factors accumulating over time.
However, it’s never too late to do something positive for your health. The key risk factors for mouth cancer are smoking and alcohol, so quitting or cutting down will reduce your risk of developing cancer and other diseases, plus improve your overall health and wellbeing.
If you smoke, seek help to quit.
Limit alcoholic drinks to within the government guidelines.
Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and limit red and processed meat and processed foods.
Aim to be physically active every day.
Make an appointment with your dentist if you notice any of the symptoms of mouth cancer: an ulcer or patch that hasn’t healed in three weeks, a lump or swelling in the mouth, numbness or difficulty swallowing.
From dental implants to root canal treatment, if you need any advice on changes to your dental health, why not book a consultation with Dr Gahan. As a registered specialist in Endodontics, Restorative Dentistry and Prosthodontics, he’s ideally placed to offer advice and provide expert treatment at any stage in your life. Simply get in touch with the friendly team at Finkle Hill Dental Care on 01977 682 200 or by emailing email@example.com.