As with just about everything about our bodies, our teeth change as we age. You may experience varying types of concerns about your teeth depending on your developmental stage in life, and you could benefit from learning healthy habits particular to your age group.
First, it’s important to understand what teeth are and why they change. You may be surprised to learn that teeth are not bones. Although similar in their compositions, teeth don’t contain collagen that gives bones flexibility to withstand pressure. This means teeth lack regenerative properties, so a broken tooth will never mend or regenerate.
Similarly, your lifetime supply of enamel (each tooth’s protective coating) comes with your permanent teeth. Enamel will erode over time as a result of everyday wear and tear, but overall your teeth are quite strong and durable. They are meant to last a lifetime, although several factors will contribute to their relative long-term health.
Tooth development begins during the neonatal stage, at about six weeks. A newborn baby will have all its primary teeth developed, but not yet erupted.
The first signs of a tooth appear when a child is about six months old. As a general rule, four new teeth grow in about every six months, with lower teeth often developing first. Teeth typically form in pairs–one on the right and one on the left of each type of tooth.
If a baby’s tooth development does not follow within the approximated time frames, it usually is nothing to worry about. In fact, many times slow teething is a genetic trait passed down to the child. Babies born prematurely or with low birth weights also commonly experience a delay in tooth development. However, parents should seek a dental evaluation for children with no teeth by 18 months.
Generally, by the time a child is 2 to 3 years of age, all 20 primary teeth have erupted. As these temporary teeth settle in, larger and stronger permanent teeth continue to develop. Once those teeth have grown, primary teeth will fall out to make room for the incoming permanent ones.
Orthodontists usually practice preventative treatment with children between the ages of 2 and 6. At this stage, the orthodontist is concerned with the development of your child’s dental arches, any premature loss of primary teeth, and habits that could cause future dental problems. If problems are noticed during this age range, oftentimes the orthodontist can perform corrective measures in order to reduce or eliminate the need for orthodontic treatment later in life.
Childhood & Permanent Teeth
The permanent teeth that erupt in elementary and middle school are the ones you are outfitted with for the rest of your life. These include teeth of several shapes and sizes, including incisors, canines, premolars and molars. The first molars usually come through at about age 6 or 7, and by age 13 children should have 28 of their 32 teeth.
Some of the more common problems in children include crooked teeth, overlapping or overcrowded teeth, and malocclusions (improper alignment of the upper and lower teeth) causing misalignments in the bite.
Tooth development finishes during adolescence as the final molars, often referred to as wisdom teeth, develop. Some teens may need to have their wisdom teeth extracted due to problems the new molars can create for the jaw and for other teeth.
The teenage years are the most common period during which braces are applied. As dental development is progressing, misaligned teeth or bites, as well as overcrowding or spacing, can easily be detected. Furthermore, the jaw is continuing to grow and develop, making it the optimal time to guide teeth into their correct permanent positions.
Orthodontic treatment for teenagers addresses many issues, including:
- Malocclusions or crooked teeth
- Potential for decay and gum disease
- Chewing and swallowing difficulties
- Speech difficulties due to misalignments
- Low self confidence or self consciousness about appearance
- Frequent cavities caused by plaque buildup
- Wear and stress on the jaw joint and teeth that are prone to damage
- The likelihood of losing teeth later in life
Treatment is important because crooked or crowded teeth can be more difficult to clean, which may contribute to cavities and gum disease. An improper bite can also cause abnormal wear of tooth surfaces, difficulty in chewing or speaking, excess stress on supporting bone and gum tissue, and inflammation in the jaw joint leading to restricted movement of the jaw and chronic pain. Without treatment, problems may become worse over time and increase the intensity, duration and cost of orthodontic care in later years.
Early to Middle Adulthood
Your teeth continue moving throughout the course of your life. As you get older, your teeth will naturally move out of place. Tooth movement is connected to the periodontal ligament, which consists of a group of collagen fibers that anchor the teeth to the jaw bone. It is like a hammock, allowing teeth to move in their sockets. The periodontal ligament is constantly reshaping as a result of normal forces of the bite. For some, this change is much more noticeable than for others. This could necessitate further orthodontic care or initial orthodontic care if you never had braces as a child or teenager.
Adult orthodontic treatment is similar to treatment in adolescents, but there are some differences. While the jawbone continues to grow during childhood and adolescent years, in adulthood it has become fixed. Because adult jawbones are set, they may need surgery first to align their jaws before they can start wearing braces.
Adults also may have some existing breakdown or loss of their teeth and bone that supports the teeth, and may require gum and dental treatment in conjunction with orthodontics. More frequent cleanings at the dentist’s office are often required to maintain healthy gums and teeth during orthodontic treatment, as adults’ teeth are more susceptible to the growth and buildup of plaque.
Adults in their early or middle stages also begin to develop more risks to overall tooth health. For instance, the filling used to repair cavities during childhood can cause changes to your teeth and occasionally your bite later in life.
Tooth grinding and jaw clenching also can change the nature of your bite over time. Grinding forces the lower jaw forward and puts tension on the upper teeth. This continual thrusting affects the position of the upper arch, potentially pushing it out of alignment.
The risk of periodontal disease also becomes a factor in early and middle adulthood. Periodontal diseases range from simple gum inflammation to serious damage to the soft tissue and bone that support the teeth. Untreated periodontal disease ultimately will result in tooth loss.
Middle to Late Adulthood
Middle-aged and older adults face their own set of oral concerns. Dry mouth is one of the most commonly reported problems at this stage. And while you might assume that this is just an uncomfortable sensation, it’s a problem that should not be ignored. Chronic dry mouth can accelerate the breeding of harmful bacteria in the mouth, which leads to more rapid tooth decay. It also can increase the risk of gum disease and mouth infections.
Receding gums also are common in older adults. Gum (periodontal) disease is the most common cause of receding gums, although some gum loss is to be expected with the wear from brushing over many years. It is important to brush and floss daily at all life stages, but neglecting to do so in middle and older adulthood will substantially elevate your risk of gum disease.
If you are an older adult, it is important to take note of signs and symptoms of serious gum, tooth or mouth ailments that could affect your overall health. See your dentist if you are experiencing gum swelling, bleeding or irritation, as well as bleeding while flossing. Similarly, you want to take notice of lingering bad breath, mouth ulcers or sores, lumps or thickening skin inside the mouth, or trouble chewing or swallowing.
Regardless of the stage of development, following a regular regiment of proper tooth and oral care can ensure you have a healthy, happy smile well into adulthood.