For centuries, horse traders judged a prospective purchase’s age by looking at its teeth. Fortunately for humans, there are ways of compensating for, and avoiding, the effect of time on our pearly whites. Even so, age often brings a variety of changes in the mouth, which can act along with accumulated wear and tear to age our teeth.
Changes in the mouth over time: When you first eat something, saliva is secreted to begin breaking down the food. Minute food particles combine with mucus and naturally-occurring bacteria to form a colorless layer on teeth called plaque. Brushing helps clear it away, but if plaque stays on the teeth it creates a hard coating called tartar, which brushing cannot remove.
With age, we may produce less saliva; even certain medications make saliva dry up. This dry mouth problem can impede how well you taste food, and it can also affect dental health because saliva production helps inhibit bacterial growth in the mouth.
Keeping yourself hydrated and brushing after meals with a toothpaste that contains fluoride can keep sticky plaque off your teeth. Less bacteria and less plaque = less tooth decay.
Floss daily to keep plaque from collecting between teeth. Flossing also removes colonies of bacteria that can migrate to, and damage, heart valves in people who are vulnerable. This type of infection is called infectious endocarditis.
Gum disease is another risk for aging teeth. Bacteria in the mouth can cause inflammation of the gums, making them pull away from the teeth. This exposes part of the root, prompting the old adage of seniors being “long in the tooth”. Open areas can breed infection, or periodontitis, below the gum line. This type of infection threatens the integrity of the bone and gum tissues that hold teeth in place.
Gum disease usually occurs after the age of 40, and is more common in men than in women, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
Wear and tear: Even people who are very conscientious about dental hygiene may be unwittingly jeopardizing the enamel, or thin, hard outer coating on their aging teeth. Brushing too vigorously, especially using a brush with medium or stiff bristles, can wear away tooth enamel. Go gently, and only buy tooth brushes with soft bristles.
Dietary factors can affect the integrity of enamel too, with acidic foods leaving it thinner and vulnerable to erosion and staining. Thinner enamel reveals the brownish-yellow dentin underneath, making teeth look darker and older. If you do consume acidic foods and beverages like citrus fruits and wine, be sure and rinse immediately afterwards with water. Wait thirty minutes before brushing, to give your enamel time to toughen up.
Certain toothpastes are also formulated to reharden enamel and protect against acid wear.
Protect your smile – and keep people guessing about your age -- by being diligent about dental hygiene, watching your diet, and scheduling regular visits with your dentist.
Age Page: Taking Care of Your Teeth And Mouth. Public Information Sheet. NIH National Institute on Aging. Accessed March 16, 2012.
Moïse Desvarieux et al. "Periodontal Microbiota and Carotid Intima-Media Thickness
The Oral Infections and Vascular Disease Epidemiology Study (INVEST)". Circulation.
2005; 111: 576-582.
Periodontal (Gum) Disease: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments. Public Information Sheet. NIH National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Accessed March 16, 2012.