Most people understand that teeth are a vital part of each and every one of us. Through educational outreach by organizations such as the American Dental Association, as a society we are becoming more and more “dental aware”. Parents are now more vigilant about taking their children to the dentist at an early age. This is important first step for many reasons. The old notion that baby teeth are not important because the permanent teeth will be there to replace them is, thankfully, going away. Baby teeth are not only important in nutrition, but they also help to maintain space and arch form until the permanent teeth arrive. Early loss of primary teeth can have reaching implications in the permanent dentition. Additionally, early visits to the dentist can pave the way for a lifetime of consistent dental care by teaching proper dental habits, but also removing the fear of going to the dentist at an early age.
As adults, most people want to care for their teeth. Teeth are often the first thing people see when they look at someone. By adulthood time begins to take a toll, and many adults begin to see more cavities and even start to lose teeth. Most people now are aware of dental implants and when a tooth is lost, more and more people expect there to be a replacement. In my practice over the last 10 years, I’ve seen a steady increase in patients now requesting dental implants instead of having to be informed of them. All of this is a positive trend that is encouraging to see.
Where I think we are still lagging behind is in the elderly. While the incidence of total tooth loss (those needing full mouth replacement) has declined, the presence of tooth decay is still an issue. According to the CDC, about 1 in 5 adults over 65 have untreated tooth decay. Other health needs, our children and grandchildren, and life in general start to take a higher priority. But this is the time to be more vigilant. Decreased manual dexterity makes oral care more challenging. Shrinking tooth pulps make teeth less sensitive to cavities, and so unless they are getting regular dental check-ups many elder adults are unaware of their tooth decay. Additionally, concern for outward appearance, or at least the desire to have the movie star smile starts to wane. I still hear “well, if I were 20 years younger, then I’d get that tooth replaced”. While finances and other significant health issues can certainly be a factor when determining whether a tooth can be replaced, I don’t think age should be. Nor should they impede the need for vigilance when maintaining our existing teeth. Studies have shown that people who have marked loss of teeth are prone to a significant decrease in dietary intake, depriving us of essential protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. No one beats time in the end, but with improved oral health, a functioning dentition, we can improve our nutritional status, which can help to stave off and slow down many debilitating conditions that plague us as we age.
So no matter your age, focusing on oral health and maintenance pays off in the long run. We just have to make it a priority.