Growing up, it may have seemed as if tooth loss was an inevitable part of aging — remember grandma’s dentures grinning at you from her night table? Times have definitely changed: 75 percent of people over the age of 65 now keep at least some of their teeth, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). But there’s still a lot of room for improvement: 20 percent of older adults have untreated tooth decay, more than two-thirds have gum disease, and nearly 1 in 5 has lost all of their teeth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “It’s important to take care of your teeth, not just because it makes you look better and makes it easier to eat, but because untreated gum disease has been linked to conditions such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and even possibly certain types of cancer,” says Judith Jones, a professor of dentistry at the University of Detroit Mercy and a spokeswoman for the ADA. Here are six ways to keep your choppers sparkling and in tip-top shape.
1. Brush twice a day
The most important thing you can do is brush your teeth for two minutes, twice a day, with a fluoridated toothpaste, advises Karyn Kahn, a dentist at the Cleveland Clinic. If possible, use an electric toothbrush. Compared with manual toothbrushes, powered ones — whether electric or sonic — reduced dental plaque 21 percent more and gingivitis (gum inflammation) 11 percent more after three months of use, according to an analysis of 56 studies published between 1964 and 2011 by the research organization Cochrane. Just don’t get carried away with brushing, as too much pressure can wear down tooth enamel and erode gums. And know that whitening toothpastes can similarly wear down enamel.
2. Don’t forget the floss
More than one-third of Americans would rather do an unpleasant activity like wash dirty dishes, clean the toilet or sit in traffic than floss. But flossing once a day does seem to reduce gingivitis, or mild gum disease, according to a 2011 review of 12 studies by Cochrane. “Flossing reaches the area between your teeth that is inaccessible to a toothbrush, breaking up dental plaque there before it becomes organized enough to do its damage,” explains Kahn. This is particularly important as you age, since gum tissue between teeth shrinks, leaving bigger gaps where food can get stuck. If you have arthritis in your hands, which makes it difficult to use floss, you can also try using an interdental brush, a small brush which is specially designed to clean between teeth and is easier to hold than floss. For best results, floss before brushing — it’s much more effective in reducing plaque between your teeth and in your mouth than doing the reverse, according to a study published this past August in the Journal of Periodontology.