Taking Care of Your Teeth and Mouth
A National Institute of Aging Fact Sheet
No matter what your age, you need to take care of your teeth and mouth. When your mouth is healthy, you can easily eat the foods you need for good nutrition. Smiling, talking, and laughing with others also are easier when your mouth is healthy.
Tooth Decay (Cavities)
Teeth are meant to last a lifetime. By taking good care of your teeth and gums, you can protect them for years to come. Tooth decay is not just a problem for children. It can happen as long as you have natural teeth in your mouth.
Tooth decay ruins the enamel that covers and protects your teeth. When you don't take good care of your mouth, bacteria can cling to your teeth and form a sticky, colorless film called dental plaque. This plaque can lead to tooth decay and cavities. Gum disease can also cause your teeth to decay.
Fluoride is just as helpful for adults as it is for children. Using a fluoride toothpaste and mouth rinse can help protect your teeth. If you have a problem with cavities, your dentist or dental hygienist may give you a fluoride treatment during the office visit. The dentist also mayprescribe a fluoride gel or mouth rinse for you to use at home.
Gum diseases (sometimes called periodontal or gingival diseases) are infections that harm the gum and bone that hold teeth in place. When plaque stays on your teeth too long, it forms a hard, harmful covering, called tartar, that brushing doesn't clean. The longer the plaque and tartar stay on your teeth, the more damage they cause. Your gums may become red, swollen, and bleed easily. This is called gingivitis.
If gingivitis is not treated, over time it can make your gums pull away from your teeth and form pockets that can get infected. This is called periodontitis. If not treated, this infection can ruin the bones, gums, and tissue that support your teeth. In time, it can cause loose teeth that your dentist may have to remove.
Here's how you can prevent gum disease:
- Brush your teeth twice a day (with a fluoride toothpaste).
- Floss once a day.
- Make regular visits to your dentist for a checkup and cleaning.
- Eat a well-balanced diet.
Don't use tobacco products.
Cleaning Your Teeth and Gums
Knowing how to brush and floss the right way is a big part of good oral health. Here's how: every day gently brush your teeth on all sides with a soft-bristle brush and fluoride toothpaste. Small round motions and short back-and-forth strokes work best. Take the time to brush carefully and gently along the gum line. Lightly brushing your tongue also helps.
Along with brushing, clean around your teeth with dental floss to keep your gums healthy.
Careful flossing will remove plaque and leftover food that a toothbrush can't reach. Rinse after you floss.
How to Floss
If brushing or flossing causes your gums to bleed or hurt your mouth, see your dentist.
Your dentist also may prescribe a bacteria-fighting mouth rinse to help control plaque and swollen gums. Use the mouth rinse in addition to careful daily brushing and flossing. Some people with arthritis or other conditions that limit motion may find it hard to hold a toothbrush. It may help to attach the toothbrush handle to your hand with a wide elastic band. Some people make the handle bigger by taping it to a sponge or Styrofoam ball. People with limited shoulder movement may find brushing easier if they attach a long piece of wood or plastic to the handle. Electric toothbrushes can be helpful.
Dentures (sometimes called false teeth) may feel strange at first. When you are learning to eat with them, it may be easier if you:
- Start with soft non-sticky food;
- Cut your food into small pieces; and
- Chew slowly using both sides of your mouth.
Dentures may make your mouth less sensitive to hot foods and liquids. They also may make it harder for you to notice harmful objects such as bones, so be careful. During the first few weeks you have dentures, your dentist may want to see you often to make sure they fit. Over time, your mouth changes and your dentures may need to be replaced or adjusted. Be sure to let your dentist handle these adjustments.
Keep your dentures clean and free from food that can cause stains, bad breath, or swollen gums. Once a day, brush all surfaces with a denture care product. When you go to sleep, take your dentures out of your mouth and put them in water or a denture cleansing liquid.
Take care of partial dentures the same way. Because bacteria can collect under the clasps (clips) that hold partial dentures, be sure to carefully clean that area.
Dental implants are small metal pieces placed in the jaw to hold false teeth or partial dentures in place. They are not for everyone. You need a complete dental and medical checkup to find out if implants are right for you. Your gums must be healthy and your jawbone able to support the implants. Talk to your dentist to find out if you should think about dental implants.
Doctors used to think that dry mouth (xerostomia) was a normal part of aging. They now know that's not true. Older, healthy adults shouldn't have a problem with saliva.
Dry mouth happens when salivary glands don't work properly. This can make it hard to eat, swallow, taste, and even speak. Dry mouth also can add to the risk of tooth decay and infection. You can get dry mouth from many diseases or medical treatments, such as head and neck radiation therapy. Many common medicines also can cause dry mouth.
If you think you have dry mouth, talk with your dentist or doctor to find out why. If your dry mouth is caused by a medicine you take, your doctor might change your medicine or dosage.
To prevent the dryness, drink extra water. Cut back on sugary snacks, drinks that have caffeine or alcohol, and tobacco. Your dentist or doctor also might suggest that you keep your mouth wet by using artificial saliva, which you can get from most drug stores. Some people benefit from sucking hard candy.
Oral cancer most often occurs in people over age 40. It's important to catch oral cancer early, because treatment works best before the disease has spread. Pain often is not an early symptom of the disease.
A dental check-up is a good time for your dentist to look for early signs of oral cancer. Even if you have lost all your natural teeth, you should still see your dentist for regular oral cancer exams. See your dentist or doctor if you have trouble with swelling, numbness, sores, or lumps in your mouth, or if it becomes hard for you to chew, swallow, or move your jaw or tongue. These problems could be signs of oral cancer.
Here's how you can lower your risk of getting oral cancer: don't smoke; don't use snuff or chew tobacco; if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation; use lip cream with sunscreen; and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) publishes information on oral, dental, and craniofacial research and oral health care.
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)
Building 45, Room 4AS19
45 Center Drive MSC 6400
Bethesda, MD 20892-6400
The American Dental Association (ADA) provides information about oral health topics.
American Dental Association (ADA)
211 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
For more information about health and aging call or write:
National Institute on Aging Information Center
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
NIA publishes fact sheets on various health related topics of interest to older people and their families. For a complete listing of publications, call or write to the above address.
National Institute on Aging
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Institutes of Health
This article was posted on October 12, 2003.