Aging & Dental Health

Your child won't keep his or her first teeth forever, but that doesn't mean those tiny pearly whites don't need conscientious care. Maintaining your child's dental health now will provide health benefits well into adulthood, as primary (baby) teeth serve some extremely important functions.

Kids developing jaws and teeth.

For one thing, primary teeth serve as guides for the eruption of permanent (adult) teeth, holding the space into which these new teeth will erupt. The crowns (tops) of the permanent teeth actually push against the roots of the baby teeth, causing them to resorb, or melt away. In this way, the adult teeth can take their proper place.

What's more, your child's primary teeth will be there for most of childhood, helping your child to bite, chew and speak. For the first six or so years, he or she will be relying on primary teeth exclusively to perform these important functions. Until around age 12, your child will have a mix of primary and permanent teeth. You will want to make sure those teeth stay healthy and are lost naturally — when it's time.

Your Child's First Teeth

Kids mouth anatomy.

Your child's 20 baby teeth will begin to appear usually between six and nine months, though in some cases it may start as early as three months or as late as twelve months. The two lower front teeth tend to erupt first, followed by the two upper ones, these teeth are called the central incisors. Then the neighboring teeth called lateral incisors will erupt too. The first molars come in next, followed by the canines (eyeteeth). And finally, the last teeth to erupt are the two-year molars. Sometimes your baby can experience teething discomfort during this process. If so, there are courses of action to help make your child more comfortable.

Your infant's gums should be gently wiped after each feeding with a water-soaked gauze pad or damp washcloth. As soon as the first tooth erupts, establish a daily brushing routine with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush and no more than a thin smear of fluoridated toothpaste. Your child may need your help with this important task until about the age of 6.

Your Child's First Dental Appointment

Age one dental visit

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that your child see a dentist by his/her first birthday, or as early as the first tooth erupts. Though this may sound early, learning proper pediatric oral hygiene techniques, checking for cavities, and watching for developmental problems is extremely important.

There are a number of forms of tooth decay that can affect babies and small children. Early Childhood Caries (tooth decay) can develop rapidly, progressing from the hard, outer enamel layer of a tooth into the softer, inner dentin in six months or less.

Most of all, it's important for your child to have a positive experience at the dental office as he/she will be a regular visitor for years to come.

Pediatric Dental Treatments

There are a variety of dental treatments offered to prevent tooth decay in children, or to save or repair teeth when necessary. They include:

Topical Fluoride — Fluoride incorporates into the enamel of teeth, making it harder and more resistant to decay. Although there is a small amount of fluoride in toothpastes and in some drinking water supplies, a higher concentration can be applied professionally to your child's teeth for maximum protection.

Dental Sealants — A plastic coating can be applied at the dental office to prevent cavities by sealing the little grooves on the chewing surfaces of back teeth known as “pits and fissures.” These little crevices become the perfect environments for decay-causing bacteria. Immature tooth enamel is more permeable and therefore less resistant to tooth decay. Dental sealants are easy to apply and provide years of protection (Watch Dental Sealant Video).

Root Canal Treatment — Perhaps you have had a root canal treatment yourself, to save an injured or severely decayed tooth. Well, sometimes children need root canals, too. In children these are called pulpotomies or pulpectomies. As mentioned above, baby teeth are important guides to the permanent teeth that are already forming beneath your child's gums. Therefore, saving them from premature loss can help prevent a malocclusion (“mal” – bad; “occlusion” – bite) that requires orthodontic treatment.

Bonding — Chips and minor fractures to front teeth — common childhood occurrences — can be repaired with tooth-colored bonding materials. These lifelike resins made of plastic and glass can be used on baby teeth as well as permanent teeth and last until the youngster has completed facial growth (Watch Bonding Video).

Orthodontic Concerns

Orthodontic Problems.

By around age 7, most malocclusions have become evident. Interceptive orthodontic treatment around this time can help direct proper tooth positioning and/or jaw growth, eliminating or simplifying the need for later treatment. There are many orthodontic problems that can be detected early and are examples of why a trained professional should evaluate your child during his/her growth and development.

Sports & Your Child's Teeth

If your child is active in sports, a custom-made mouthguard is a highly recommended safeguard. According to the American Dental Association, an athlete is 60 times more likely to suffer dental harm when not wearing one of these protective devices. A custom mouthguard is made specifically for your child using a model of his or her teeth. This will offer greater protection than an off-the-shelf model. It's an investment that pays off highly in the form of reduced pain, suffering — and dental expenses down the road!

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Couple.Today, Americans are not only living longer — we're also retaining our natural teeth longer than ever before. But this rosy picture isn't free of thorns: Older adults tend to require increasingly complex dental treatments; are often more prone to contracting certain diseases; and sometimes find it challenging to keep up with daily oral health practices.

Yet maintaining good oral hygiene is critically important as we age. When problems occur in the mouth, they can cause difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking and smiling — basic functions which can affect both physical and social well-being. It's possible that medications prescribed for other diseases can adversely affect a person's oral health; it's also possible that a decline in oral health can worsen existing maladies (such as diabetes), or even cause systemic (whole-body) inflammation. What other special dental issues do older people face — and what can be done about them?

Dental Concerns for Older Adults

If you think cavities are just for kids — think again! A recent study found that nearly one-third of people over 65 had untreated dental caries (cavities). In older people, these are found not only in the crown (chewing surface) of the tooth, but also in the root, which may become exposed due to gum recession. Regular dental checkups are the best way to find and treat dental caries; left untreated, they can cause pain, require more complex procedures, and eventually lead to lost teeth.

Gum disease is another major oral health issue faced by older people — and it's presently the leading cause of tooth loss in adults. The disease is caused by plaque bacteria, which thrive on the sticky biofilm that clings to the surface of teeth when they aren't properly cleaned. Poor-fitting dentures can make the problem worse, as can the presence of certain diseases (such as diabetes or cancer).

Sometimes, decreased mobility (due to arthritis or similar conditions) makes routine brushing and flossing more difficult. Special brushes with larger grips and floss holders can help make daily cleaning easier; additionally, therapeutic mouthrinses may be prescribed. In-office treatments can also be effective in bringing gum disease under control.

Blythe Danner Oral Cancer Video.

Oral cancer is a concern at any age, but it's 7 times more likely to show up in a person over 65 — and it causes more deaths in older Americans than skin cancer does. Early detection offers the best chance at controlling the disease, and improves survival rates significantly. A thorough screening for oral cancer should be a part of every older person's routine dental checkup.

Dry mouth (xerostomia) isn't just an annoyance — it can be harmful to your oral health. Aside from its lubricating qualities, saliva contains beneficial digestive enzymes, acid neutralizers, and bacteria-fighting agents. A number of factors may cause the body to produce less saliva than normal — but in older adults, this problem is often due to side effects from prescription or over-the-counter medications. If you're experiencing chronic dryness of the mouth, it's sometimes possible to change your medication, and/or use products designed to relieve these symptoms.

Oral Hygiene For Life

It was once commonly believed that dental problems and the loss of teeth were an inevitable consequence of aging. But here's the fact: Age itself isn't a risk factor for tooth loss; properly cared for, your teeth can last a lifetime. However, it's true that the mouth does change as you age. How can you give yourself the best chance of keeping your natural teeth? You guessed it: Maintain a regular practice of good oral hygiene!

Brush twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush — use one with a special grip, or an electric brush, if it helps. Clean in between your teeth with floss, or another type of interdental cleaner, at least once a day. If you wear dentures, regularly clean and care for them as instructed. Eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. And don't forget to have regular dental exams so that little problems don't turn into major headaches!

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