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How to Keep Your Teeth for Life

One in four Americans over 65 has no teeth. If you want to hold on to your smile, follow these 11 tips.

By Debra Witt | July 30, 2012

Here’s a tough fact to swallow: One-quarter of Americans over age 65 have no teeth, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many more have fewer than 21, reports the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. (An intact adult mouth includes 32 teeth.) Vanity aside, those missing teeth signify major health concerns.
 
“Oral health and overall health is a two-way street,” says Denis Kinane, PhD, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. "If you have poor oral health, it can make chronic conditions, such as diabetes, worse. And if you have a health problem like diabetes or heart disease, that can impact your teeth and gums.”

(MORE: Why Oral Health Is the Key to Total Health)

Gum disease — a chronic inflammatory condition that is the major cause of tooth loss — has been linked not only to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease but also to an increased risk of dementia, erectile dysfunction, osteoporosis, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis and respiratory infections. Gaps in one's teeth are unsightly, can affect speech and, of course, make it tougher to eat. The solutions, such as implants, bridges and dentures, can be expensive and require unpleasant procedures.

The good news is that it's possible to protect your teeth and gums for years to come. Here are 11 tips from dental experts:
 
1. Vitamin C is vital. Vitamin C plays a crucial role in maintaining and repairing gum tissue. State University of New York at Buffalo researchers, in a study of 12,000 adults, found that those who consumed less than 60 mg a day of the nutrient were 25 percent more likely to have gum disease than people who took in 180 mg or more. One orange, or an eight-ounce glass of orange juice, contains more than 80 mg of vitamin C; red and green sweet peppers, guava, kiwi and Brussels sprouts are other good sources.

2. Get vitamin D to keep your calcium. Researchers say more studies are needed, but emerging evidence indicates that people with low levels of vitamin D are more prone to tooth loss than other adults because, it is believed, the compounds in the nutrient reduce the amount of bacteria in the mouth. What scientists know for sure is that vitamin D is crucial for maximum calcium absorption — and calcium is essential for strong teeth and bones. In the SUNY-Buffalo study, people who consumed 800 mg of calcium a day were less likely to develop severe gum disease. The current federal recommended daily allowance of vitamin D is 600 international units (IU) for adults up to age 70 (and 800 IU for those older than 70), but some experts believe the daily dose should be increased. Many primary-care physicians now routinely test patients' vitamin D levels and then prescribe a recommended daily dose. Ask about it at your next checkup.

3. Give your teeth a cleansing workout. Munching on crunchy fruits and vegetables, such as carrots and apples, at the end of a meal or as a midday snack can serve as a sort of mini tooth-brushing session. The hard flesh acts as a cleanser and the chewing motion stimulates saliva production.

4. Take in more omega-3. There has been promising research indicating that omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon, mackerel and other fish, may help gum tissue heal. A recent Harvard Medical School study, which analyzed federal data tracking more than 9,000 people for five years, found that those who ate more fish rich in omega-3, or took a fish oil supplement, were up to 30 percent less likely to have gum disease.
 
5. Embrace afternoon teatime. Black and green teas contain antioxidants that can help prevent plaque from forming on your teeth. Tea leaves also contain the tooth protector fluoride. According to a study published in the Journal of Periodontology, regular green tea drinkers have a lower incidence of advanced gum disease — perhaps, researchers believe, because the antioxidant catechin in green tea interferes with the body’s inflammatory response to bacteria, which in turn helps reduce the symptoms of gum disease. Another teatime bonus: Researchers at the University of British Columbia say the catechin in green tea is more effective than mints at combating bad breath.

(MORE: The Fiftysomething Diet)

6. Work out. People who exercise regularly are less likely to have severe periodontal disease than more sedentary adults, according to another study published in the Journal of Periodontology. "Anything you do for your general health, including maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active, also helps protect your teeth and gums," Kinane says.
 
7. Don't let medicine dry you out. Many prescription and over-the-counter medicines can decrease saliva flow, which is a problem, Kinane says, because "saliva production is key to preventing gum disease." For some people, aging appears to bring on a decline in saliva production as well. The minerals in saliva serve as a protective barrier against decay and help keep teeth strong. Taking frequent sips of water or chewing sugar-free gum can help relieve dry mouth, but if these measures aren’t enough, ask your doctor or dentist about oral moisturizers or saliva substitutes.
 
8. Relax. Add gum disease to the list of chronic health conditions that can be exacerbated by stress. Studies show that during periods of high stress, people are more apt to skip basic tooth care, like flossing, using mouthwash, or even brushing twice a day. That's especially unfortunate because additional research shows that the stress hormone cortisol can aggravate symptoms of gum disease.

9. Quit smoking. “Smoking is a major influence on oral health,” Kinane says, and a body of research shows that the habit increases the odds of developing gum disease, along with hindering many possible treatments.

10. Floss, then brush. You know this already, but do you do it? Kinane says many adults are lazy about the basics. By flossing first, you can scrape off food trapped in the tight spots between teeth, which are prime spots for bacteria growth, and then brush it away.

11. Keep up with cleanings. Regular six-month checkups allow your dentist to give your teeth a thorough cleaning and examine your mouth and gums for abnormalities. “The symptoms of gum disease aren’t always easy to spot. Patients will know if they have soreness or bleeding," Kinane says, "but only a dentist can assess the health of your gums.”
 
7 Signs of Gum Disease
 
Gum disease is a serious infection that, untreated, can lead to tooth loss, inflammation and compromised health. Yet the symptoms can be hard to spot. The American Academy of Periodontology says these are the warning signs that should prompt you to see a dentist:

  • Tender, swollen or red gums
  • Bleeding while brushing or flossing
  • Gums pulling away from the teeth, which will make your teeth appear longer
  • Loose or separating teeth
  • Mouth sores or other pain
  • Persistent bad breath
  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite