How to look after your teeth as you age

adult male brushing his teeth...

By middle age you might feel as though you've got into a productive oral health routine which works for you and keeps your teeth in good condition. But as the years advance, so new challenges and problems can present themselves. It pays to be aware of what to look out for, and by making a few changes to your routine you could avoid or at least mitigate the effects of the most-common conditions...

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Dry mouth
Many people experience a reduced saliva flow as they grow older. This can be a symptom of another condition or a result of medication. Also known as xerostomia, dry mouth can be uncomfortable and affects around one-in-five older people.

Because saliva moistens and cleanses the mouth, aiding digestion and controlling bacteria and fungi, dry mouth can result in an increased risk of gum disease. As well as being uncomfortable, it can lead to difficulty swallowing, sores in the mouth and hoarseness and bad breath.

If it's thought to be caused by a particular medicine, your GP may try to adjust the dose or offer an alternative. If not then sufferers are advised to try sucking sugar-free sweets to encourage saliva production, to breathe through their nose, to drink plenty of water and to take steps to mitigate the problems it can cause. There are also artificial saliva substitutes available as over-the-counter medicines.

Gum disease
Inflammation of the gums, or Gingivitis to give it its proper medical name, is mainly caused by plaque – and can be exacerbated by a whole range of other factors. These include food left in the teeth, poor-fitting dentures, dry mouth (see above), poor diet and diseases such as cancer, anaemia and diabetes. If unchecked it can lead to periodontal disease, weakening the bone supporting the teeth. This can then lead to the loss of teeth.

Early symptoms are swollen, sore or red gums, or bleeding when brushing teeth. If it advances to periodontal disease then tell-tale signs are infected or receding gums, pockets forming between the teeth and gums, loose teeth, bad breath and gum abscess.

Good oral hygiene can usually remedy mild gum disease, while periodontitis is usually treated to control the infection – which can involve deep cleaning and root planing. A range of medications can also be used before surgery is resorted to.

As you might guess from the name, attrition simply refers to the accumulated years of wear-and-tear experienced by teeth as people both live longer and keep their own teeth longer. All that biting, chewing and grinding takes its toll and the enamel wears away, opening the door for cavities to form.

The first piece of advice offered by dental professionals is to cut down on acidic drinks like fizzy pop and fruit juices – and not to brush the teeth for at least 20 minutes after consuming such drinks. Brushing up on your toothbrush technique is also advised, with a pen-like grip recommended and vigorous horizontal scrubbing a no-no.

Other conditions
Darkened or stained teeth are also more prevalent in older people, caused both by changes in dentin (the bone our teeth are made from beneath the enamel) and by the cumulative effects of drinking things like tea and red wine. Ill-fitting dentures can cause a build-up of fungus leading to stomatitis – which sees the tissue beneath the denture become inflamed. Root decay can also result from exposure to acids, aided by receding gums.

Best practice
Experts advise using a fluoride tooth paste and anti-bacterial mouthwash. You should also avoid tobacco products and visit the dentist regularly.

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