We live in a society where we no longer need to fear growing old -- we now have the resources to battle wrinkles, weight gain and health problems associated with aging. Thanks to current medical advancements, we're living longer, healthier lives -- and that includes our dental health. But there is one drawback to our good fortune -- keeping our teeth longer puts us at risk for tooth root decay, a disease that affects many people over the age of 50.
While cavities may be considered kids' stuff, anyone with natural teeth can get tooth decay. To top that off, receding gums are a fact of life for many middle-aged people and seniors as gums experience normal wear and tear over time.
Hard or recurrent tooth brushing can also destroy the soft tissues of your gums. But the main culprit of receding gums is gum disease, which affects three quarters of adults. No matter how your gums recede, once they do, you're a target for root decay.
A Thick Skin
Receding gums unveil a tooth's roots that don't have the same hard enamel coating found on teeth. Rather, our roots are covered by cementum, which anchors the tooth to the jawbone. Plenty of dental problems come with the exposure of cementum -- it's yellow in color, making for a less attractive smile. But the real tragedy is that cementum is not designed to protect the tooth like enamel and can leave exposed roots more susceptible to decay.
To make matters worse, root decay is good at hiding out. Root decay lurks along the gum line or in between teeth where it's hard to detect with the naked eye. Although you may not feel any pain, there are some telltale signs to look for -- tooth discoloration or "notches" at the gum line are often symptoms of root decay. However, X-rays are the only way to accurately locate any decay between teeth.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
The development of root decay is providing a new challenge for dentists. Root decay is more difficult to treat than normal cavities -- especially if the dental cavity travels under the gum line. Traditionally, dentists treat root decay the same way they treat regular dental cavities. While the procedure is more demanding, root fillings have a much higher failure rate. Tooth filling material isn't designed to adhere to the tooth's porous roots; this often results in a shorter life span for the restoration and multiple visits to the dentist to fix the problem.
As more baby boomers are becoming seniors, the dental industry is finding new ways to battle root decay. Dentists are now practicing less invasive procedures to treat early signs of root decay. Professional fluoride treatments are often recommended, which your dentist can provide in the office. At-home fluoride use is also important in the fight against tooth decay, and your dentist can prescribe a toothpaste, mouth rinse or fluoride trays as part of your ongoing dental care.
For severe damage or decay found between teeth, your dentist may need to treat the area with a dental crown. Extreme cases may require a tooth extraction followed by a dental bridge or dental implants to replace the tooth. Root decay also increases your chances of needing a root canal. A dental cavity on the root of the tooth has more chances of affecting the pulp, so it's important to treat root decay before it has a chance to spread.
Prevention Is the Best Medicine
If your gums have receded, you should take measures to prevent root decay. Diets high in sugar will feed the dental plaque-causing bacteria found on your roots, so stay away from sweets! Dry mouth also increases your chances of getting root decay -- saliva is needed to wash away food debris and neutralize acid. Without it, exposed roots may be more prone to acid attacks and resulting decay. Drinking lots of water, sucking on sugar-free candy or chewing sugarless gum can help prevent dry mouth.
If you suffer from receding gums or have just reached "that age," regular dental visits allow your dentist to check for tooth root decay. Preventive measures also include gum disease treatment for receding gums: An ultrasonic dental cleaning removes dental tartar from under the gum line and helps ward off the possibility of gum disease. If necessary, a gum graft can help restore gums to their natural state. At home, soft brushing with fluoride toothpaste will also help keep your gums intact and prevent decay.
With age comes the wisdom to make excellent health choices -- in the time it took to read this article, you've only gotten a couple of minutes older, but your knowledge of root decay has grown immensely. With a little extra care, you can draw the curtain on the root decay problem and truly reap the benefits of your golden years!