I f you’re 65 or older, you might find that your dental health is iffy. Twenty percent of older adults have untreated tooth decay, more than two-thirds have gum disease, and almost 1 in 5 has lost all of his or her teeth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Dental health is related to your general health, since inflammation and infection in your mouth can spread to other areas of the body,” says Judith Jones, D.D.S., M.P.H., a professor of dentistry at the University of Detroit Mercy and a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association.
Here, six steps that will help you maintain your dental health—and help your teeth last longer.
1. Keep Them Clean
That means brushing with a fluoridated toothpaste for 2 minutes twice a day. Avoid whitening toothpastes, which can wear down enamel, says Karyn Kahn, D.D.S., a dentist at the Cleveland Clinic.
2. Choose the Right Brush
Manual toothbrushes can do a fine job, but electric and sonic devices may have a slight edge. According to a 2014 analysis from the independent Cochrane Collaboration, powered toothbrushes reduced dental plaque 21 percent more and gingivitis 11 percent more than manual devices after three months of use.
They may also be easier to use if you have hand or wrist arthritis, says Jay W. Friedman, D.D.S., M.P.H., a consumer healthcare advocate in Los Angeles. But be gentle; too much pressure can wear down tooth enamel and erode gums.
3. Get in Between
Clean between teeth each day to remove any food stuck there. Kahn says this breaks up plaque before it does any damage.
You can floss or use a water jet or an interdental brush. The latter is more effective than flossing, according to a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology.
4. Know When to See a Pro
While many dentists recommend a checkup and cleaning every six months, most people can probably follow a once-a-year schedule, Friedman says. In fact, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Dental Research found that most people get no additional benefit from seeing a dentist or having a cleaning more than once a year.
But if you have significant tartar or gum disease (or one or more of its risk factors, such as diabetes or a smoking habit), twice-a-year cleanings are often appropriate.
And tell your dentist if you notice a persistent sticky, dry feeling in your mouth. You may have dry mouth, which can hike cavity risks.
5. Be X-Ray Savvy
The ADA generally recommends bitewing X-rays (which reveal cavities between teeth) every two to three years for adults with good oral health who are at normal cavity risk.
“But even every three to five years is reasonable,” Friedman says, adding that most people need more extensive X-rays only every eight to 10 years.
6. Recognize a Dental Emergency
A persistent, throbbing toothache that makes it hard to chew or bite can signal an abscess or infection, especially if accompanied by facial swelling, Jones says. These infections can spread quickly to your jaw, head, or neck, so seek treatment right away, preferably at your dentist’s office but at an emergency room if necessary.
“I’ve seen people spend 10 days in the hospital ICU or lose their vision due to an untreated tooth abscess,” Jones says. If a tooth splits vertically, see a dentist as soon as possible (preferably the same day) because that can easily become infected, she says.
A fractured tooth that’s not painful, jaw pain when chewing, a broken denture, or a mouth sore also warrants treatment but can wait a few days, Friedman says.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the October 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.
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