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Congratulations, Boomers! Our generation is the first that can confidently expect to have most or all of our adult teeth when we hit age 65 – and well beyond. Credit that achievement to advances in dental care and our increased understandings about how to successfully manage our health.

Boomers can expect to live, on average, 34 years longer than our grandparents did. And those are active, healthy years – not the dreary senior-years scenario we may have envisioned back when we were too young to know better. There’s just one problem. Human teeth seem to be almost hardwired to age faster than most people now do. It’s as if our teeth are still running on the old life span, and start deteriorating around age 50. Fortunately, regular dental checkups and healthy oral hygiene habits can keep teeth in great shape over an entire extended lifespan.

Keep Your Smile in Shape

Boomers understand the importance of staying active and eating right. But that doesn’t mean we always do the right thing by our bodies or our teeth. Sometimes we decide to indulge in a sweet treat, other times foods and beverages that seem healthy – like an energy drink or a big glass of fresh juice – are actually not great for our teeth and overall wellness.

We all know that sugar is absolutely bad for your teeth. Sugar itself doesn’t cause decay, but it feeds some types of oral bacteria that then release acids which weaken tooth enamel – the hard outer coating of your teeth. This creates tiny, shallow holes (cavities), which often get deeper and bigger over time, as the decay works its way down to the soft pulp inside the tooth.

Acidic foods can also create unhappy teeth, by softening the enamel. If the enamel is then further damaged by activities such as brushing teeth too enthusiastically following the consumption of acidic foods or beverages, teeth are further weakened and their ability to fight off decay is decreased.

Loss of enamel also makes teeth look yellowish or brown/gray (depending on the color of the underlying layer of dentin) which adds years to a smile. Unfortunately, enamel does not regenerate itself, once it’s gone it’s gone for good.

Here’s how to protect that enamel: limit acidic beverages, such as soda, citrus juices, energy and sports drinks and (sorry!) wine. Sugar-laden acidic drinks such as citrus juice and citrus-flavored sodas can cause double the dental damage, and should be a very occasional treat. Acidic foods such as pickles or salads with vinaigrette dressings are equally problematic. That doesn’t mean you can’t consume these foods and drinks, but that you should limit how often you indulge and have them with other types of food to buffer the acid.

And, as noted above, brushing your teeth too vigorously, or shortly after your teeth have been exposed to acids, worsens the damage. Hold off for an hour or so before you brush, but do rinse out your mouth with water as soon as possible to help neutralize the acid.

Speaking of water, staying hydrated is important for healthy teeth and a healthy body. Dry mouth puts teeth at increased risk for erosion, as a healthy saliva flow helps protect teeth from exposure to acid.

Saliva is also the mouth’s major defense against tooth decay, and also helps to control the bacteria and other microorganisms that live in your mouth. Too little saliva can cause accelerated tooth decay, gum disease, oral sores and pain, bad breath and even interfere with your ability to taste.

Be careful about strict diet plans. Juice cleanses obviously expose your teeth to acids, but an all-liquid diet can also result in reduced saliva production (salvia flow is triggered when we chew). Low carb diets can have the same effect on salvia flow. Whether low carb is a diet or a lifestyle for you, make life better for your teeth when you’re eating low carb by keeping yourself well-hydrated with water, rinsing your mouth with a product designed for dry mouth care, and chewing sugarless gum. The same advice holds true if you’re taking medication that makes you mouth dry. You can also talk to your dentist to get guidance on over-the-counter products intended to address dry mouth issues.

And remember that regular professional cleanings and regular dental checkups are the best way to maintain a bright, healthy smile. No matter how devoted you are to at home care, regular exams and professional teeth cleanings are critical. Even people who are super-dedicated to good oral hygiene will inevitably miss a bit of plaque here and there, which can harden into tartar. Your hygienist will safely clean hardened dental plaque that’s impossible to remove at home, and any trapped debris.

Checkups involve more than a quick peek at your teeth – your dentist will screen you for oral cancer, tooth decay and gum disease. Caught early, these conditions are far easier to manage.

Managing Stress and Sleeping Problems

Boomers are often dealing with a lot of stress. We’re concerned about staying on-point at work, and we also lead active social lives. We’re often called on to help our aging parents and our children. Some of us may be dealing with increased financial pressure associated with retirement and health care costs. We may be struggling to get by, or be saving in order to enjoy travel and other great adventures. All of this can raise stress levels.

Stress obviously isn’t good for your health. It can cause insomnia, worsen high blood pressure and other medical conditions, and result in depression. More than 30 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. And stress also isn’t good for your teeth. Tense people tend to engage in bruxism – the formal term for teeth grinding and clenching which can weaken teeth, fracture fillings, crack crowns, and destroy dentures.

About 70% of all teeth grinding happens when we’re sleeping, so its common for people to be totally unaware that they grind their teeth and clench their jaws. Your partner may be your first clue that you have a bruxism problem. Sore jaws, a clicking sound when you open your mouth, a dull constant headache that originates around the temples, tender teeth, and even indentations on your lounge are other signs to be aware of.

Besides stress, bruxism can also be caused by teeth that don’t line up properly. It could be a side effect of some medicines (Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil are known to cause grinding in some people). And it could be just a habit. But it’s a habit that’s best to break, as it can severely damage teeth and gums, wreck your expensive dental work, deprive your partner of sleep, and even permanently distort your face due to swollen muscles near the sides of the lower jaw.

For anything more than the occasional bout of teeth grinding, you should see your dentist. The most common preventative treatment for severe cases of teeth grinding is to wear what’s called “a night bite plate” or a “bite splint.” Your dentist will fit one for you, some fit over the bottom teeth, others go on the top. In general, they work by compensating for misaligned teeth or by keeping your jaw more relaxed. And regular dental care can help stop the damage caused by bruxism.

Other Boomer Dental Issues

The older we get, the more attention our teeth demand. All teeth naturally wear down with age, and this can lead to decay and gum infections. Receding gums and bone loss can be a problem, especially if you didn’t get regular dental care over the years.

And dental work that was done a decade or two ago may need to be replaced – fillings, crowns and veneers aren’t forever. A filling will last 8-10 years, a crown or bridge should last about 5-7 years. Dentures typically need replacing every 7-10 years, to fit the changing contours of gums and your jaw. Dental implants have the longest life span of all the reconstructive techniques, about 30 years. But be aware that the predicted life spans of your dental work assume that you are getting regular dental checkups and senior dental care, if not deduct a couple of years from the longevity estimates.

Other dental concerns for mature adults include “mesial drift” – this refers to teeth’s natural tendency to migrate to the front of our mouths. This movement can result in a misaligned bite, an overbite or underbite, and wobbly bridgework.

At the risk of being repetitive, regular dental care and good at home hygiene is the key to keeping your teeth and gums healthy, attractive and strong.

Paying for Dental Care

Unfortunately, even if you have dental insurance, it can be a struggle to fit dental care into your budget. Dentists can do amazing things these days – restoring smiles to optimum health and appearance and creating incredibly realistic replacements for missing or decayed teeth – but these treatments don’t come cheap.

  • Dental Crown: $1400 - $1800

  • Root Canal (front tooth): $1200 - $1800

  • Root Canal (molar): $1400 - $1850

  • Bridge: $3800 - $5300

  • Dental Implant (single tooth): $5500 - $6800

  • Dentures (upper or lower): $1500 - $2500

  • Dentures (full set): $3000 - $5000

The costs above are for zip code 33135 (Miami) and will vary somewhat according to location. Additionally, the cited cost includes only the fee associated with the specific treatment, not the additional procedures that are typically required. For example, a root canal often requires a dental crown too, to protect and restore the tooth.

Dental insurance only covers $1000-$1500 per year in dental costs. One root canal, and your coverage for the year is exhausted.

Medicare does not cover dental care, except for a very small number of specific procedures that must be performed as part of a covered health treatment. For example, if your jaw is broken, some dental work may be covered by Medicare if it is absolutely required for successful treatment.

Some Medicare Advantage plans do cover dental care. If your dental insurance does not, if you don’t have insurance, or want an affordable alternative to insurance, consider dental savings plans. These plans can save you 1-%-60% on the cost of dental treatment, have no annual spending limits, and no restrictions regarding age or pre-existing conditions.

Even if you’re in the enviable position of being able to easily afford dental care, why pay more at the dentist than you have to? Dental savings plans are the modern way to ensure that your smile doesn’t make you look older than you feel.

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