An article in the Vancouver Sun this week suggested that Baby Boomers have “unique” dental problems. Although, as a group, Canadian Boomers “are keeping their teeth clean and healthy, they are also experiencing an increase in such problems as exposed gums, dry mouth, acute sensitivity and tooth root cavities.” We see similar trends in the US.
Dr. Steven Weiner, an Ontario dentist featured in the article, generally attributes the phenomenon to better care early in life, more saved teeth and longer lifespans.
“In previous eras, if you had a toothache, you pulled the tooth. Then you had to deal with other issues that involved. People now are retaining their teeth longer – for a lifetime – and that wasn’t the goal back then.
“We see so many perfect teeth now, through orthodontics, great home and dental care, but what we have as a result of the aging population is great teeth and poor gums.”
How is it that a person can have “great home and dental care” yet have “poor gums” and other dental problems? And is this really unique to Baby Boomers? Or is it more that theirs is just the first generation to have these problems in large numbers?
My hunch is that there’s more truth in the latter.
The article mentions – almost in passing – some trends that I would argue are now having a big impact on people’s dental health. One of them is the increased use of pharmaceutical drugs, many of which cause dry mouth as a so-called “side effect” – drugs as varied as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antihistamines and muscle relaxants. Dry mouth may not sound like anything too serious, but it’s got some significant dental implications, raising the risk of caries (cavities), tooth erosion and periodontal disease. This is because one of the functions of saliva is to wash away the microbes that make up dental biofilm (plaque) and food particles that feed them. Saliva is also a source of the calcium and phosophate particles that help keep tooth enamel strong. The less saliva, the more conditions favor decay and other tooth damage.
There are a number of safe and helpful products available to help increase saliva flow and alleviate dry mouth – products such as GC Dry Mouth Gel and the Dental Herb Company’s Tooth and Gums Tonic. Drinking more water can help, as can eating more foods that require chewing, especially foods like crunchy vegetables.
This brings us to another major trend I see affecting people’s dental health: diet. Since the Boomers came of age, highly processed convenience foods and sugary soft drinks have become much more common – more available and consumed in larger amounts. High fructose corn syrup has become ubiquitous in processed foods, increasing our overall consumption of added sugars. Our intake of refined carbohydrates has skyrocketed, and few of us eat nearly enough whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit. The result is a diet that is highly acidic, promoting tooth decay and inflammation. (Gum disease, like heart disease, is a chronic, inflammatory condition.) Moreover, the acids and sugars in sodas, energy drinks and similar beverages further contribute to tooth erosion, as a great many studies have shown.
If we, as a society, continue in these directions, we can expect the “unique dental problems” mentioned by Dr. Weiner to be the new norm. But it’s not too late to turn things around. By making positive, healthy life choices, we increase the likelihood of our having both healthy teeth and gums into our senior years.