Harvard Health Letter

The aging mouth - and how to keep it younger

Teeth, gums, and the rest of the oral cavity need extra care and attention if you want them to stay healthy in your later years.

Aging isn't always pretty, and your mouth is no exception. (Ever consider why you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth?) A century ago the need for dentures in later life was almost a foregone conclusion. Today, three-quarters of people over 65 retain at least some of their natural teeth, but older people still suffer higher rates of gum disease, dental decay, oral cancer, mouth infections, and tooth loss. While these problems are nothing to smile about, you can still do a lot to keep your mouth looking and feeling younger than its years.

Wear and tear

Teeth are amazingly strong. Your molars can bear down with over 200 pounds of pressure. But they're not indestructible. A lifetime of crunching, gnawing, and grinding wears away the outer layer of enamel and flattens the biting edges. Tooth surfaces are also affected by exposure to acidic foods such as citrus fruits and carbonated beverages, which dissolve the protective enamel. Weakened enamel can set the stage for more serious dental problems. A crack or break in the tooth's outer surface leaves the delicate pulp tissue vulnerable to irritation and inflammation. And, since the nerves at the tooth's core lose sensitivity with age, the problem may be well advanced before you notice any pain. If an infection develops, you could need a root canal procedure or even lose the tooth entirely. The chance of having tooth damage severe enough to require a root canal or similarly invasive procedure triples once you're over age 65. The consolation prize: reduced nerve sensitivity means that procedures that may have been uncomfortable for younger people could hurt less if you are older.

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