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Brushing Up on Oral Health

7 Tips to Keep Your Smile Bright

Age can affect gums, cavities and even how you should brush. Time to boost your dental hygiene

items related to dental health including a tooth brush toothpaste mouthwash a timer dental floss and a tongue scraper

Josh Dickinson

En español

About half of Americans delayed dental visits during the pandemic, one study found. That means many of us are playing catch-up at home. So we asked the experts for their best do-it-yourself tips for caring for older teeth and treating common tooth-related problems.

1. Issue: Arthritis or shoulder problems

The answer: Rig up your toothbrush

If you have mobility or dexterity issues that make toothbrushing difficult, the solution can be as simple as switching to an electric toothbrush, which has a wider handle and does a lot of the work for you. But if you are more comfortable with an old-fashioned toothbrush, try this trick from dentist Joseph M. Calabrese, clinical professor and director of geriatric dental medicine at Boston University. “Slice into a tennis ball on opposite ends and feed the toothbrush handle through. When you brush, hold on to the tennis ball,” he says. (Wrapping a washcloth, or anything that will thicken the grip, around the handle will also work.)

2. Issue: Bleeding gums

The answer: Brush longer

If your gums bleed when you brush, it usually means there is plaque buildup on teeth that is inflaming the gums. Bleeding gums don't just mean potential tooth loss; the underlying inflammation increases your risk of health issues including heart disease and Alzheimer's. The answer: Brush at least twice a day for at least two minutes (the time it takes to listen to Queen's “We Will Rock You"). Use floss or a small interdental brush to reach in between teeth once a day, and use an antibacterial rinse after cleaning your teeth.

3. Issue: Receding gums

The answer: Give yourself a tooth massage

If your teeth look longer than they once did, it may be partly because you're brushing too hard. “People might think their teeth feel dirty or they haven't been to a dentist in a while, so they brush hard — which causes inflammation, and gums begin to recede,” explains Lisa Thompson, a dentist and program director of the geriatric dental fellowship at Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and imagine massaging — not scrubbing — gums.

How Often Should I See a Dentist?

There is no set formula, says ADA spokesperson Judith Jones. If your oral hygiene and habits are top-notch, your dentist may give you the green light to come in once every nine to 12 months. But if you have gum disease, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, you'll be instructed to go more often, perhaps three or four times per year. “Higher bacterial load around teeth in plaque causes inflammation, which is detrimental when you have chronic conditions,” she says.

4. Issue: The return of cavities

The answer: Add more fluoride

Even if you survived the “cavity-prone years” of yore, you may suddenly be finding yourself back under the drill. Nearly 1 in 5 adults 65 or older have untreated tooth decay, thanks to issues like dry mouth and receding gums. The answer? Fluoride, an ingredient that's consistently been shown to protect against tooth decay. “Fluoride is a valuable tool, not only with children but older adults, too,” Calabrese says. Along with a fluoride toothpaste, he might also recommend a fluoride rinse, available at your drugstore, or a high-concentration prescription fluoride paste, rinse or varnish, applied as directed by your dentist, for more staying power.

5. Issue: A new ‘sweet tooth’

The answer: Plan your treats

We begin to lose some of our 10,000 taste buds after age 50, which may eventually lead us to crave more intense flavors such as sweets. If you want to “help” your grandkids with their Halloween haul, limit your indulgence to one treat per day. The more times a day you expose teeth to sugar, the more opportunities for a bacteria feeding frenzy, advises dentist Judith Jones, spokesperson for the American Dental Association.


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6. Issue: Dry mouth

The answer: Make like a ballplayer

The most common cause of dry mouth is medications, Calabrese says. A wide array of meds can have this effect, including — but not limited to — antidepressants, anticholinergics, antihistamines and high blood pressure drugs. But dry mouth is more than an annoyance; saliva plays a big role in reducing the risk of various tooth and gum diseases. So do what baseball players do: Keep water on hand to sip regularly throughout the day and stock up on sugar-free gum. It helps to remove excess food particles and promote the flow of saliva.

7. Issue: Bad breath

The answer: Clean your tongue

First, add tongue scraping to your morning and night routine, suggests dentist Elisa Chavez, director of the Pacific Center for Equity in Oral Health Care at the University of the Pacific. Tongue scrapers are inexpensive, U-shaped devices that remove the gunky white layer that harbors the bacteria that cause bad breath. You can also do this by brushing your tongue with your toothbrush after cleaning your teeth. But be aware that chronic bad breath can be a sign of a more serious issue, such as tooth decay.

Jessica Migala has written for Marie Claire, Prevention and more than 30 other publications.

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