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How Teeth Change With Age

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Given all the chewing, crunching, biting, and gnashing they do, our teeth are surprisingly resilient. Still, everyday wear and tear and the natural aging process take a toll.

Here’s what happens to teeth as we age -- and what you can do to keep your teeth strong and sparkling for a lifetime.

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Preventing Acid Erosion

By far the biggest threat to teeth is sugary and starchy food. These carbohydrates ferment, causing the bacteria in the mouth to produce acids. Those acids can quickly eat away at the enamel of teeth.  As a result, this creates tiny pits where tooth decay can form.

Most of us assume that sugary candy is the worst offender. But sweetened carbonated beverages, such as colas, can be even more dangerous, since carbonation increases acid levels in the mouth. Some recent studies have singled out sports drinks as a particular threat to tooth enamel. 

What to do:

  • Go easy on sugary foods, especially carbonated soft drinks and sports drinks.
  • Avoid frequent snacking, which causes acid levels in the mouth to remain high over an extended time.
  • If you get a craving for something sweet, chew sugarless gum. Chewing increases saliva production, which helps cleanse the mouth and neutralize acidity.
  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day for two minutes and floss daily. Daily dental hygiene reduces bacteria levels in your mouth.
  • See your dentist every six months for a regular checkup that includes removing plaque buildup.

Preventing Mechanical Wear and Tear on Your Teeth

The function of teeth is mostly mechanical -- to mash and grind and otherwise break up food to make it more easily digested. For the most part, our teeth are resistant to cracks and chips.

“Contrary to what many people assume, teeth do not become more brittle with age,” says Steven E. Schonfeld, a private practice dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association. “Still, we see patients all the time who have cracked or chipped a tooth biting down hard on something like an olive that still has a pit or a kernel of unpopped popcorn.”

Teeth that have fillings or root canals are particularly vulnerable, since they don’t have the strength of structurally intact teeth.

Another problem that causes wear and tear is the habit of grinding or clenching teeth. Called bruxism, it is frequently caused by stress or anxiety. Over time, bruxism can wear down the biting surfaces of teeth, making them more susceptible to decay.

What to do:

  • Avoid chewing ice and other very hard foods.
  • Double-check to make sure that pitted foods have no pits before you bite down on them.
  • See your dentist regularly. He or she can spot cracked or broken fillings that may weaken teeth. Your dentist will also check for signs of bruxism. In many cases, people who grind or clench their teeth aren’t aware of the habit or the damage they are doing to their teeth. If you show signs of bruxism, your dentist may recommend a mouth guard that can be worn at night to prevent grinding.

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

Number of Days Per Week I Floss

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Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

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