A brilliant white smile can build confidence and make you proud to show your pearly whites. Unfortunately, many seniors experience yellow teeth, which can lead to lowered self-esteem and quality of life. Seniors are already at an increased risk for depression.
1 Additionally, older adults who experience depression are more likely to express cognitive changes, somatic symptoms and loss of interest than younger adults, making strong self-confidence all the more important.2 To enhance the look of their smiles, it's vital for seniors to understand the aging process of their teeth and learn what they can do about it.
Overview of tooth discoloration
There are three forms of tooth discoloration: extrinsic, intrinsic and age-related.3 Extrinsic discoloration can happen at any age, and it's caused by surface stains to the enamel. Certain foods and habits can cause yellowing of the teeth through extrinsic discoloration from things like coffee, red wine, dark sodas and smoking tobacco.
Intrinsic discoloration occurs beneath the enamel in the dentin. The dentin can darken or turn yellow from the use of certain antibiotics and excessive exposure to fluoride during childhood. This darker color is then exposed once the enamel erodes.
Age-related discoloration is a combination of these two forms of teeth-yellowing. With time, these conditions can worsen, and that's why many seniors experience a yellow smile.
Purpose of enamel
Enamel is a mineralized substance that covers the outer layer of each tooth.4 It's the hardest substance in the body because it faces a lot of stress over time while trying to protect the teeth. This top layer is only partly translucent, and can range from light yellow to a grayish white. Enamel is extremely important when it comes to protecting oral health because it shields all layers of the teeth. It protects the tooth's surface from stains and erosion from acid and plaque. Going beneath the surface, the enamel defends the sensitive inner layers of the teeth from very hot or cold food and beverages.
Thinning of enamel
The enamel doesn't contain living cells, so your body can't grow it back once it's been destroyed. Unfortunately, enamel thins over time, and seniors are more susceptible to this problem because their enamel has been exposed to more years of wear and tear.
Enamel can decay from the foods you consume. Highly acidic beverages such as carbonated sodas or alcoholic drinks can soften the enamel and cause it to lose its mineral content.4 The saliva helps naturally restore balance to your mouth, but complications can cause these acid attacks to erode the enamel. For example, if acidic beverages or foods like fruit are consumed frequently and in large quantities, the saliva may not be able to keep up with the acid attacks. Also, many people suffer from dry mouth, which means the saliva won't be able to properly do its job.
With time, these acid attacks can cause the enamel to thin and expose the dentin, which is what causes the teeth to become yellow.3
"The dentin is more likely to absorb coloring agents."
Thickening of dentin
While the thinning of the enamel is typically inevitable, having yellow teeth is not. For instance, a senior's genetic makeup could equip him or her with thicker enamel or a more white dentin. In this situation, the older adult may not be as affected by thinning enamel. However, one oral health trait is consistent across the board: Once it's exposed, the dentin is more likely to absorb coloring agents into the teeth.3
How seniors can treat yellow teeth
The first part of combating tooth discoloration is prevention. Enamel can't be repaired, but seniors can slow the thinning process with proper oral care and the right diet choices. Beginning as early as possible, try avoiding acidic foods and drinks, or only consume them at meal times. Limiting these destructive foods and beverages is a more practical alternative to protecting your enamel. Additionally, take proper care of your teeth. Brush twice and floss once a day, and visit the dentist as often as necessary. Retired seniors without insurance may benefit from a dental discount card to make these visits less expensive.
Aside from prevention, seniors can also fight discoloration with whitening treatments. There are professional procedures available at the dentist office, and there are at-home bleaching agents, as well. It's important to speak with your dental health professional about your next step to a whiter smile.
1. "Depression is not a normal part of growing older," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
2. "Depression in older adults," Amy Fiske, Julie Loebach Wetherell, and Margaret Gatz; Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, April 2009. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2852580/
3. "Tooth discoloration," Colgate. http://www.colgateprofessional.com/patient-education/articles/tooth-discoloration
4. "Dental erosion," British Dental Health Foundation. https://www.dentalhealth.org/tell-me-about/topic/mouth-conditions/dental-erosion