Breaking Down the Biggest Myths About Aging and Your Oral Health

April 23, 2018

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Isn’t getting older hard enough without having to struggle to find true answers to simple questions? Unfortunately, there are so many myths, rumors, and misconceptions circulating, it’s hard to know where to turn for the right answer.

For a perfect example, consider the subject of oral health.

As we age, it’s pretty obvious to everyone that health in general becomes more challenging and unpredictable. It makes sense that our oral health would follow that same pattern, and medical science proves that’s the case: older individuals are more prone to oral health problems than their younger counterparts.

But, that simple truth is a far cry from the common myths and misconceptions many of us grew up hearing. Here are just a few that you may have heard, and may even believe to be true:

You will lose your teeth by the time you’re 75 (or 80, or 110!)

It’s true that maintaining a full set of your natural teeth can be challenging in later years, especially for the oldest among us who grew up when modern dental care wasn’t as readily available or prioritized as it is today.

However, there is no biological reason why you can expect your teeth to naturally weaken and fall out as you age. Even as hair grays and falls out, with proper care, individuals can typically expect to keep a full set of teeth, barring any interfering illnesses or genetic issues.

Teeth get longer and thinner as you age

The term “long in the tooth” has been synonymous with “old” for nearly 200 years. And, while the phrase originally referred to horses (whose teeth continue to grow throughout their lives), it became widespread in referring to older people because our teeth often do appear to grow longer in our later years.

In actuality, the longer, thinner appearance of an older person’s teeth comes from the natural receding of the gums, not the actual lengthening of the teeth. Receding gums expose more of the tooth, making them appear longer.

In a healthy mouth, and when the individual is not suffering from osteoporosis or other disease that can weaken the bones, this natural change in the mouth won’t cause teeth to be loose or more fragile.

However, with more tooth surface exposed, and less protection between the surface and the root of the tooth, seniors should take special care to effectively brush and floss at the gum line. Failing to do so can lead to periodontal disease and an increased incidence of dental caries.

Dentures are easier and safer than your natural teeth

"Even as hair grays and falls out, with proper care, individuals can typically expect to keep a full set of teeth, barring any interfering illnesses or genetic issues."

This myth is understandable from the standpoint of how common it historically became for older Americans to lose their teeth and get dentures as a necessary replacement. Eventually, it seems the routine nature of this practice suggested it was the best option available.

In reality, however, forsaking your natural teeth for dentures brings its own set of problems. Dentures can be hard to properly care for, uncomfortable, and expensive. They can also inadvertently lead to chronic oral health problems, including periodontal disease, because ill-fitting dentures can create irritation and sores on the gums, which are then prime locations for harmful bacteria to congregate.

While dentures are an important tool to help individuals who need them, seniors don’t have to resolve to rely on dentures above keeping their natural teeth unless necessary.

Dry mouth is just a normal part of getting older

Actually, dry mouth (also known as xerostomia) is a very common side effect of a number of prescription drugs. The reason it affects seniors more than younger generations is because older people are typically exposed to more prescriptions on a regular basis, so they’re more likely to deal with this side effect.

Dry mouth is completely harmless

Xerostomia isn’t the worst thing that can happen to your mouth, and it’s easily treated. However, it’s not completely harmless.

Your saliva serves several important purposes:

  • Helps keep your mouth moist and lubricated
  • Softens food as it’s chewed, aiding in digestion
  • Balances the pH level in your mouth, countering dangerous acidity which can be harmful to teeth
  • Cleans teeth of food particles and harmful bacteria

So, if you’re suffering from dry mouth, all these responsibilities of your saliva begin falling short. This can lead to increased risk of tooth decay and gum disease. It can also impact digestion, and lessen the amount of nutrients you’re getting from your food.

Staying hydrated by sipping water throughout the day is usually adequate treatment, along with careful oral health self care each day. However, in some circumstances, medicated mouthwashes or sprays can be prescribed to help make up for low saliva production.

When you need to decide, general health care is more important than dental care

There’s tremendous clinical evidence available indicating that regular dental care, combined with excellent oral health self care, is a vital part of maintaining your overall health. Not only are there many dangerous health conditions that can begin in the mouth, but there are many systemic conditions that can be diagnosed earliest by a dentist during a regular examination.

Both general medical care and oral health care should be of equal priority for anyone who wants to maintain their highest level of health. However, this is not always represented in the insurance marketplace. For example, Medicare — the medical insurance covering over 50 million American seniors — does not include general dental services, and most group plans offered through employers require employees to choose dental coverage as a separate, voluntary plan. So, it’s not surprising that this myth persists.

Dental insurance is the only option for saving money on dental care

There are many excellent dental insurance plans available for private purchase or through employer-supplied group plans. However, if you are unable to access or afford dental insurance, there are a number of alternative options that can provide significant savings off of standard retail fees for dental services:

  • Low- or no-cost clinics (often organized and supported by municipal or county government)
  • Dental discount programs (in which a monthly membership fee provides access to contracted discounts at participating providers)
  • Annual office memberships (paying a flat fee at the beginning of the year for a set number of dental services at a specific provider throughout the year)
  • Shopping around (seeking out the lowest price among local providers)
  • Negotiation (requesting lower prices than what an office advertises)

In all these cases, the emphasis needs to be on obtaining quality oral health services, at the best possible price, to augment excellent oral health self care habits at home.

We hope this article has helped dispel some common myths and errors you’ve heard regarding aging and your oral health. For more vital information about caring for your oral health as you get older, check out more articles on our dental care blog.

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