Disembodied dentures smiling back at you from a glass. A sunken-in, toothless face. Hours in a dental chair, awaiting expensive implants.
If images like these give you the heebie-jeebies, take heart. Although tooth loss is common, it's not an inevitable part of aging, says Richard H. Price, DDS, a retired dentist in Newton, Mass., and spokesman for the American Dental Association.
"Teeth do not die a natural death -- we kill them," Price says. Exactly how do we do that? In short, by disease or trauma, Price says.
Tooth Loss from Trauma
"When an irresistible force meets the immovable object, something gives," Price says. Trauma might be anything from getting hit by a baseball to biting on a frozen candy bar.
Your teeth are great tools. But not for things like:
- Removing caps, tops, or lids
- Cracking ice cubes, nut shells, or popcorn kernels
- Chewing on pencils or pens
- Holding clothes hangers
- Loosening knots or tearing off tags
- Cutting thread
Clenching and grinding - often done in response to stress -- can also put too much stress on your teeth. It can also mean a bite is unbalanced, Price says. Both deserve your attention.
Tooth Loss From Disease
Plaque -- bacterial buildup that resides in sticky stuff on your teeth -- causes decay and can lead to periodontal disease, which inflames gums and destroys supporting tissues such as ligaments and bones. And with their demise can come loose -- and eventually lost -- teeth.
Poor oral hygiene and lack of professional care are big contributors.
Other factors that put you at greater risk for periodontal disease and potential tooth loss include:
Changing hormones during pregnancy can also affect a woman's response to disease. So it's especially important to get regular professional care throughout pregnancy.
People with developmental and other disabilities are at greater risk as well, due to the challenges of home care. This means caregivers need to be creative about helping with this task.
Early onset of periodontal disease is another concern. "If I see a patient under 40 with periodontal disease, that's worrisome to me because I know this person will be particularly susceptible," says Donald S. Clem III, DDS, a periodontist in Fullerton, Calif., and the 2010-2011 president of the American Academy of Periodontology.
Keep Your Dentist Appointments
Dental care to prevent tooth loss is a partnership between you and your dentist. Make those routine appointments and keep them.
How often you need to go depends on your particular case. Twice a year is typical, but if you have gum disease, you may need to go more often.
Make sure your dentist is doing a complete periodontal evaluation at least yearly, Clem says. This includes measuring spaces under gums with a periodontal probe and getting a complete set of X-rays to assess bone levels.
Brush and Floss
"You wouldn't have to floss if you could reach all the parts of your mouth with a toothbrush, but you can't -- no more than you can vacuum a whole house without certain attachments for getting into corners," Price says. If you don't know how, ask your hygienist or dentist.
Other tips to prevent bacterial growth:
- Use a toothpaste that contains fluoride.
- Wash your toothbrush once in a while in the dishwasher or place it in a cup of mouthwash.
- Let your toothbrush dry completely after each brushing.
- Don't share your toothbrush with anyone.
Control Clenching and Grinding
Clenching and grinding can wear down your teeth. Stress control and relaxation techniques can greatly help. Also, if you clench and grind at night, your dentist can make a bite guard to even out the stresses on your teeth.
"The better you take care of your body, the broader the health benefits," Clem says.
Feed Your Teeth the Right Stuff
You don't need a special diet. Sound nutritional habits will do the trick. However, meeting your daily requirements for calcium and vitamin C, plus plenty of water, may be especially helpful for your teeth and gums.
"We know that sugar is a super fuel for bacteria that produces acids and enzymes," Price says. "So either cut down on the sugar or get it out of your mouth before it produces harm."
If you do lose your teeth, it may limit your diet.
"People who don't have their teeth tend to eat soft, high-carbohydrate diets," Clem says. "They are not able to eat high-protein, high-fiber foods, which are even more important as they age." And that could contribute to a whole host of other problems, such as heart disease or diabetes.
"Smokeless tobacco has an even more deleterious [harmful] effect on gums," Price says.
Manage Chronic Diseases
If you have a chronic disease, you may need to take extra care of your teeth.
People with poorly managed diabetes, for instance, may have difficulty with fighting infection and wound healing.
Contact your dentist if you see signs of periodontal disease: red, sore, or bleeding gums.
Start Tooth Loss Prevention Early
Attention, parents: Just as with other aspects of early development, good prenatal care and nutrition can promote healthy tooth development. It even matters during pregnancy. "Teeth start erupting in the third to fifth month of pregnancy," Price says.
A few reminders for parents:
- Never put your child to bed with a bottle of milk or sweet fluids. This bathes the mouth in sugar.
- Wipe your tot's gum pads with sterile gauze once in a while, right before or while teeth are coming in.
- When your child is learning to brush her teeth, have her stand in front of you, with her back to your front, then look up at you, which makes the mouth open up.
- Have your child use toothpaste with fluoride, but make sure he spits it out.
- Ask your child's dentist about sealants, a plastic coating for the chewing surfaces of teeth.
- Have your child use a mouth guard when playing contact sports.