‘As we age our mouth - like our body - can go through many changes, but good oral healthcare can help to keep many problems at bay,’ says Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation.
A good brushing routine, keeping an eye on your sugar intake and regular check-ups can help to ensure your teeth end up in your mouth rather than in a glass by the bed.
Most of us suffer from gum disease as we get older. Diabetes can also make you more prone to develop it. It is caused by plaque, the thin, sticky film made up of food and bacteria, which forms on the surface of teeth every day. If this is not cleaned off the gums can become infected.
Left unchecked, gum disease can cause gums to recede and eventually the jawbone underneath may become affected, causing teeth to loosen and drop out. And losing teeth is not the only consequence of gum disease. Research carried out at Columbia University shows that those with higher levels of the bacteria responsible for gum disease are more likely to suffer from narrowing arteries, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. ‘It’s not clear how this happens but it’s thought that the bacteria get into the blood stream from the mouth, which triggers the immune system, prompting the arteries to become inflamed,’ explains Dr Carter.
Symptoms of gum disease
Gum disease develops very slowly and it can be controlled if you act promptly. Bleeding gums are usually the first sign. Other symptoms include soreness, bad breath and swelling. Teeth may also become more sensitive to heat, cold and sweet things as the root of the tooth starts to become exposed.
Caring for your gums
The best way to protect gums is to brush your teeth and gums thoroughly morning and night. You should also use interspace brushes, tape, wood sticks or floss to clean between teeth.
‘You should brush for two minutes with a fluoride toothpaste, paying special attention to the space between teeth and gum recession areas where plaque tends to build up,’ says Dr Carter. ‘ It is important to remember that each tooth has five surfaces,’ he adds.
Teeth naturally become darker over time. Decay, fillings, years of tea and coffee drinking and possibly smoking all contribute to discoloration. Tiny cracks can also appear on the surface of teeth, which take up stains. However, there are various techniques that can make teeth whiter.
Whitening toothpastes can help to remove stains and restore natural colour. It is also worth considering professional bleaching treatments. DIY bleaching kits are not advisable, as they contain only a small concentration of hydrogen peroxide, which reduces their effectiveness.
‘Whitening is a complicated procedure and should only be carried out by a dentist after a thorough examination and assessment of your teeth,’ explains Dr Carter. ‘Crowns and dentures won’t bleach so if you are not careful you could end up looking like a piano keyboard. If you really want that Hollywood smile, cosmetic treatments such as crowns and veneers may be your best option,’ he adds.
How food affects teeth
Carbonated drinks, such as lemonade and cola, can cause dry mouth and contribute to tooth decay. And foods, such as crusty bread, that need tearing with your teeth can fracture and even cause bits of tooth to chip off.
Calcium-rich foods such as cheese can help to boost tooth health. And a study in the British Dental Journal showed that vitamin D works with calcium to help counter bone loss and inflammation caused by gum disease. You can get vitamin D by eating foods to which it has been added, such as some margarines and eggs, and from oily fish or from spending 10 to 15 minutes a day in the sunshine.
Recent studies carried out in the US show that a compound found in cranberries may also help to stop bacteria clinging to teeth, helping to prevent plaque deposits forming. ‘ But it’s no good getting any old cranberry juice,’ says Dr Carter. ‘Many over-the-counter varieties are very diluted as well as being high in sugar. It has to be cranberry concentrate to be effective.’
See your dentist
How often you need to go the dentist depends on the state of your mouth and what your dentist advises. ‘If your teeth are healthy they may recommend a two yearly check-up,’ says Dr Carter. ‘ If you have an on-going problem, however, such as gum disease, they may advise you go every six months or maybe every three months to the hygienist for a scale and polish.’