For decades, Conni Sota left every dental checkup with a clean bill of health. But then came a string of troubles: first the “twinges” with cold drinks, then thinning gums. Inconsistent flossing got some of the blame, admits Sota, 51, who works in a Philadelphia-area law office. But the bigger culprit was age: “Teeth and gums are vulnerable to wear, and it’s during your 50s and 60s that problems often start to show up,” says Robert Palmer, MD, head of geriatrics at the Cleveland Clinic.
The good news: A few changes to your dental routine can help. Here, a few dental care tips for healthy teeth and the warning signs to watch for—and fixes that will keep your smile healthy.
Warning Sign: Twinges
Fluoridated water was less widespread when Sota was growing up, and there were no fluoride rinses. Without that protection, “most of us in this age group have fillings, and that’s where we often see cracks in patients over 50,” says Kimberly Harms, DDS, a consumer advisor for the American Dental Association. “When a tooth is repaired, it’s never as strong as the original.” But with age, even unfilled teeth become vulnerable to cracks. And those are prime breeding grounds for bacteria.
Another dental care tip, beware a common entry point: the gum line, where tissue recedes with age. “Decay here can become serious quickly because it’s close to the tooth’s nerve,” says Harms. “If you don’t prevent or catch it early, you could need a root canal.”
Fix it: Call your dentist if you feel even a slight twinge. It may take an x-ray to pinpoint the crack, which can be smoothed or filled. Larger breaks often require a full crown or cap.
Prevent it: Your best defenses: brushing, flossing, and using a fluoride rinse. (In one study, twice-daily rinsers had nearly one-third the risk of root cavities as did people who used fluoride toothpaste and a placebo rinse.) But avoid rinses with alcohol, says Margaret Lappan Green, RDH, past president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association; they can irritate older gums.
Warning Sign: Sensitive Teeth and Painful Gums
For people with sensitive teeth, often the reason is that periodontal disease has eroded their gums. This bacterial disease starts without symptoms, and many people don’t know they have it until extensive damage has occurred. More than half of adults over age 55 have at least a mild case.
As bacteria build up at the base of your teeth, you may just notice a little bleeding when you brush. But as the microbes multiply, they loosen gum tissue, eating into underlying ligaments and bone that hold teeth in place. Bacteria may also get into your bloodstream, increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.
Fix it: Halt early gum disease and get healthy teeth with professional deep cleaning, daily antibacterial rinses (like Crest Pro-Health or stronger prescription varieties), and more-frequent dental care visits (typically once every 3 months). If you have sensitive teeth, ask your dentist about topical fluoride or other prescription desensitizing agents. Over-the-counter fluoride rinses or toothpastes such as Sensodyne can also help. And go easy on bleaching, which can temporarily increase sensitivity. (Always check with your dentist before beginning to bleach.)
Prevent it: “Get religious about flossing,” says Harms. Choose a toothbrush with soft, rounded bristles. Or try a rotation oscillation electric brush (check the label); research shows that these reduce plaque and gum inflammation better than manual types.
Warning Sign: Dryness
Saliva is a magical healthy teeth elixir: It’s antibacterial, acid neutralizing, and full of minerals that strengthen enamel. But 25% of women in their 50s don’t produce enough, so they suffer bad breath and other problems as a result.
Fix it: If your tongue or lips are often dry, tell your doctor. More than 400 medicines are linked to dry mouth, including antidepressants and blood pressure and bladder medicines. A Tufts University study showed that patients taking at least one dryness-causing medication developed three times as many cavities as those not on a drug. Your doctor may be able to switch your prescription—and check for other causes of dry mouth, such as Sjogren’s syndrome or sleep apnea. (Think you could have sleep apnea? Here’s how to tell.)
Prevent it: For minor dryness or bad breath, Palmer suggests sugarless hard candy or gum sweetened with xylitol. Daily tongue cleaning also helps. Brush on top, underneath, and as far back as you can reach. A tongue-scraping device, like the BreathRx Gentle Tongue Scraper or the one built into the Colgate 360 toothbrush, can make the job easier.
Read more: Prevention.com