Retaining Natural Teeth

Today's older adults are keeping their natural teeth longer, thanks to scientific developments and increased emphasis on preventive dentistry. During the last 30 years, dentistry has leapt from the Stone Age to the Space Age with new materials, state-of-the-art treatments and computer imaging techniques that make it possible to preserve and restore youthful smiles, and repair aged or damaged facial features.

Since 1970, the number of toothless adults aged 55 to 64 has dropped by 60%, according to a recent study by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Only two generations ago, most people assumed it was "natural" to lose all their teeth by age 50. Sadly, many seniors continue to believe that.

When you retain your natural teeth, you eat better, smile more, have more energy and live longer. Man may be the only animal that can live without any of his teeth, but shedding your ivories drastically compromises both the quality and length of life.

Tooth Decay

The human mouth is populated by an incredible amount of bacteria. Many of these tiny organisms are beneficial, including some that aid in digestion. Bacteria and acids are contained in your food and beverages, including the refined carbohydrates found in breads, crackers and cereals. Even if your diet contains few or no processed sugars, you are still at risk for cavities if you don't brush and floss regularly.

Given sufficient fuel, bacteria will multiply into colonies that mix with acid, food debris and saliva to form a whitish film known as plaque. Plaque is constructed by decay-causing bacteria to protect itself. Under the plaque shield, the organisms produce acid that can carve a hole through the tooth enamel and into the soft dentin. When bacteria penetrate the dentin, the infection can spread until it reaches the tooth's nerve.

You can save yourself thousands of dollars by what you do at home. Brush and floss- that doesn't sound very exciting. But wouldn't you rather spend your hard-earned money on something besides dental repair?

And do get regular dental cleaning and examinations. Don't wait until your tooth hurts. Prevention is important. Dental cavities can be prevented, or at least the risk of having them can be significantly reduced.

Some "red flags" for tooth decay include: tooth discoloration, sometimes manifesting as a brown stain; occasional sharp pain; a throbbing pain that never ceases; sensitivity to sweets or to extremes of hot and cold; a hole in the tooth; a broken filling; or a cracked tooth. Your risk of developing tooth decay depends on your genetic makeup, your mother's pre-natal health; your childhood diet and healthcare; your current diet, lifestyle and oral hygiene.

For better or worse, we must play with the cards we've been dealt. Changing your lifestyle, and implementing preventive measures can improve your "hand."

Reducing your intake of sugar-filled foods and drinks, and replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners are also good. Soda is especially harmful because it contains high concentrations of both sugar and acid. Even if you refuse to give up your Classic Coke, rinsing your mouth with water after finishing your soda helps wash away sugar and acid.

If you chew tobacco, stop. Not only does chewing tobacco contain hidden sugars, it's a great way to develop mouth cancer.

If you suffer from acid reflux, you're also a prime candidate for tooth decay because the associated acids can destroy tooth enamel. To combat the problem, rinse your mouth with water frequently and purchase over-the-counter fluoride rinses or sprays. More importantly, visit your physician to try to correct the condition.

Your best defense against decay is to enjoy a balanced and nutritious diet that is low in sugar, and limit snacks. Snacking is bad for two reasons: (1) each time you eat food that contains sugars or starches, your teeth are attacked by acids for 20 minutes or more. (2) foods eaten as part of a meal cause less harm because more saliva is released during a meal, washing food debris from the mouth and lessening the effects of acids.

Dr. Kevin Kelaher has been helping patients achieve healthy, beautiful smiles for over 30 years. Dr. Kelaher has been selected as one of "America's Top Dentists" by the Consumer Research Council of America. Visit his site at to find out more about his Salem MA practice.
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