Tooth enamel is the hardest part of the body. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Rupert Taylor-Price.

It’s time to sink our teeth into an important topic – oral health care. A healthy mouth is, quite simply, something to smile about.

At one time, getting older meant getting dentures. That is no longer the case. “There is no reason we have to lose our teeth as we get older,” notes Halifax dental hygienist Careen McNeil, owner of Hygiene by Careen.

“There is no reason we have to lose our teeth as we get older.”

Good oral health care will keep you smiling naturally for decades. You may find, however, that new issues emerge over time. Topping the list are dry mouth, gum disease and tooth decay.

Dentists play a key role in maintaining a great smile throughout life. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Damien Walmsley.

Say bye to dry

Dry mouth can interfere with eating, swallowing and talking. “Saliva is so important. It lubricates the mouth. We need it to speak,” says Ann Guiden, a registered dental hygienist in Waterloo and president of the Ontario Dental Hygienists’ Association.

Feeling parched is most often a side effect of medication. Xerostomia, as the condition is formally called, can also be the result of dehydration, a recent surgery, or chemotherapy and radiation.

Fortunately, help is at hand. In addition to good oral hygiene, which can help prevent everything from bad breath to tooth decay, you can sip on water, suck on ice chips, and chew sugar-free gum or lozenges sweetened with xylitol, a recommended sugar substitute. If the dry mouth is persistent or severe, you may want to purchase an over-the-counter saliva substitute. At night, consider using a time-released oral disk that keeps the mouth moist.

The skin of our teeth

Gum disease, what dental professionals call periodontal disease, can be more significant in mid-life. A build-up of plaque, the clear, sticky bacteria that forms on teeth, can infect the gums and bone that hold your teeth in place. The first sign of a problem is gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums, says Guiden. “Don’t ignore bleeding gums.”

Daily brushing and flossing will help prevent plaque from hardening into tartar, or calculus. “Once calculus is formed, it can no longer be brushed off the teeth. The teeth must be scaled,” she explains, referring to the teeth cleaning performed by a dental hygienist.

Older adults are no longer destined for dentures with proper oral healthcare. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Dr. Partha Sarathi Sahana

Well rooted

Your toothbrush is a powerful weapon against tooth decay and gum disease. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, begemot_dn.

Tooth decay can also be increasingly an issue. This can be related to gum disease, which exposes roots, but other factors such as brushing too forcefully may also be at play. Once the root is exposed, decay can spread much more quickly, notes Guiden.

Good oral hygiene will help prevent cavities as well as dry mouth and gum disease. This involves brushing at least twice a day with a soft toothbrush and a fluoridated toothpaste, flossing daily, brushing your tongue regularly, and eating healthy.

The bigger picture

Good oral health is also linked to overall health. “Our mouth is not isolated from the rest of the body,” Guiden points out.

According to the Ontario Dental Hygienists’ Association, bacteria from oral infections can enter the blood stream or airways and travel to other parts of the body. These micro-organisms have the potential to worsen or increase the risk for health problems such as heart disease, stroke and respiratory disorders. Gum infections can also make it difficult to control diabetes.

“Prevention is key,” stresses McNeil. “You need continuing hygiene care.”

Dental health on the road

For Canadians who can’t easily get out for regular oral health care, rest easy. More and more dental hygienists across the country are coming to you. For example, Careen McNeil in Halifax operates Hygiene by Careen, a mobile service that offers everything from complete oral hygiene exams to cleaning and whitening. For many people, notes McNeil, transportation can be an ordeal that deters them from accessing dental services. Problem solved.

Toothsome trivia: Cut your teeth on these fun facts

  1. The enamel on the top surface on your tooth is the hardest part of your entire body.

    Tooth enamel is the hardest part of the body. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Rupert Taylor-Price.
  2. Your teeth are like your fingerprints; they are unique to you.
  3. The average mouth produces over 25,000 quarts of saliva in a lifetime, or enough to fill two full-length swimming pools.
  4. The average North American spends 38.5 days brushing their teeth over the course of their life.
  5. According to the Guinness World Records, the most valuable tooth belonged to physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton. In 1816, one of his teeth – set in a ring – fetched $3,633 at auction in London, England. In today’s market, that tooth would have sold for more than $50,000.
  6. Humans have 32 adult teeth, dogs have 42, cats have 30, pigs have 44, and armadillos have 104 teeth. While a snail’s mouth is no larger than the head of a pin, it can hold more than 25,000 teeth.

    Fun fact: Dogs have 42 teeth. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Melly Kay.
  7. The average amount of money left by the tooth fairy in 1950 was 25 cents. In 1988, it was $1.00. In 2015, according to a Visa Canada survey, the national average for the tooth fairy is $3.44 per lost tooth.
  8. The earliest dentist is Hesi-Re who lived in Egypt more than 5,000 years ago.
  9. The first toothbrushes were actually twigs stripped from trees. The tips of the twigs could be gnawed until the wood fibres spread out flat. These were then used to clean the teeth.
  10. According to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Periodontology, 50 per cent of respondents said that a smile is the first feature they notice about another person. ☺