Of all of the possible ways to ward off the aging process gracefully, the most overlooked has got to be oral care. I find that people tend to overlook the power of a dazzling white smile – something that is associated with youth and health. Unfortunately, a myriad of dental issues other than yellowing teeth can be expected as we age. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include producing less saliva (and as saliva washes bacteria away naturally, your teeth become more prone to decay), gums receding from your teeth, and the darkening and weakening of the teeth. So, what can be done to address these issues?

Technically, xerostomia (also known as dry mouth) is not caused by aging per se. But as people get older, they are more likely to take medications or have health conditions that cause dry mouth. Both over the counter and prescription medications can be at fault; some of these include antihistamines, antidepressants and diuretics. It’s important to address dry mouth for both health and aesthetic reasons. Not only might Xerostomia be a symptom of an underlying disease, but also it is almost sure to ruin your teeth and gums. “Xerostomia is an original hidden cause of gum disease and tooth loss in 3 out of every 10 adults.” So if you find that your mouth constantly feels like cotton or notice other signs (difficulty swallowing or cracked lips, for example), make sure you see a doctor or dentist. One interesting sign of dry mouth that women should keep an eye out for is the “lipstick sign.” If you find that lipstick is constantly adhering to your teeth, that may be a sign that you aren’t producing enough saliva. Much of the time, focusing on oral hygiene and avoiding sugary drinks are the only ways to deal with dry mouth, as curing the underlying disease or stopping the medication that causes it are not always possible. However, a doctor might prescribe something to stimulate saliva production. And if your teeth have sustained damage, there are fluoride-filled tooth coverings that may be recommended.

Receding gums (gingival recession) is commonly noticed in people’s 40s and 50s, but normally has occurred slowly over decades. Basically, it is the process in which gums wear away towards the roots of the teeth, causing more of the teeth to show. Gaps can then occur between the teeth and gum line; this is both aesthetically unappealing and an easy way for bacteria to wear away at teeth. A lot of the time, receding gums is a sign of aggressive tooth brushing and natural wear and tear. On the other hand, not enough brushing (or flossing) can lead to gum disease, which affects 3 out of 4 adults. In adults over the age of 40, gum disease is responsible for 70 percent of tooth loss, and is also responsible for the very unflattering receding gums. Even hormonal changes in women can lead to gum sensitivity and recession. So, what can you do if your gums have already receded? Surgery on the gums may be your best bet. There are several different types of surgeries, depending on the extent of the gum recession, but one of the most common is a soft tissue graft. In involves removing skin from the roof of the mouth and stitching it to the gum tissue that needs to be reinstated. There is also a newer treatment available called guided tissue regeneration (GTR). It has been shown to be just as effective as a soft tissue graft, but less painful.

Now, as for the tooth concerns that most people have probably noticed at least a bit of – the darkening and weakening of the teeth; they are caused by the usual suspects, including cigarettes, certain medications, coffee, tea and acidic foods and drinks. However, even if you are a complete saint and avoid all caffeine and anything else that might contribute to a less than perfect smile, age may still come back at you with a vengeance. Demineralization of teeth occurs over time, leaving them discolored. So, what’s a person to do? Bleaching/whitening or bonding teeth are the most common cosmetic responses. Although at home whitening strips and pastes are available and widely used, their effectiveness is disputed and it’s clear that professional whitening is probably the way to go if you want instant results that last for quite some time. However, bleaching teeth – even under a dentist’s watchful eye – can result in some serious problems. Teeth can become irreversibly translucent as opposed to white with over- bleaching, and sensitivity can occur. And while there is no proven link between teeth whitening and oral cancer, there is some interesting related information that people should be aware of. One study found that “free radicals generated in the whitening process have carcinogenic potential, and therefore the use of these products…should be studied further.” Personally, I would be much more afraid of a lifetime of tooth sensitivity to cold or heat that I would be of cancer, as the former is much more likely to occur after using whitening gels, lasers, etc. Also, from personal experience, I recommend speaking to a dentist before you attempt to whiten your teeth if you have any bonds, fillers or other additions. I had my front right tooth bonded when I was quite young after chipping off half of it during an intense game of hopscotch. Years later, I tried using whitening strips only to find that all my teeth whitened except for the bonded one. Needless to say, sporting one yellow tooth in a sea of white isn't a good look.

Are you vigilant about oral care? And do you agree that white teeth and healthy gums can equate to a more youthful appearance?