We all know the confidence-boosting value of a great smile. A tooth-whitening kit and toothpaste are essential to your dental care routine. Kids and adults alike agonize over whether or not they should get braces. In a world where self-esteem is a critical issue, you don’t want to worry about how you look when you open your mouth or bare your teeth.
There’s an even more relevant and urgent reason to take good care of your teeth, however. Their condition and number as you age may serve as a strong predictor of overall health and life expectancy.
The science of losing teeth
Unlike some other species, we only get two sets of teeth in our lifetime. Our milk teeth are destined to fall out in childhood. That leaves us with only the permanent teeth to perform the vital function of mechanically breaking down the food we eat for many decades to come.
Fortunately, teeth have evolved to be up to the task. They are covered with enamel, which is the hardest substance in your body. It’s made of 96% mineral composition, enabling it to survive rigorous daily use throughout the average lifespan. And it extends well beyond that. Often, teeth are the best-preserved parts of prehistoric human remains.
Still, some people tend to lose teeth more than others as they age. The condition is known as edentulism. And it’s not just irreversible, but often progressive as well.
Losing teeth makes proper chewing more difficult. Each tooth operates best with its corresponding antagonist. Any imbalance shifts more mechanical stress and weakens the other teeth.
The implications go beyond making the act of eating food a little unpleasant. Recent studies on aging and oral health have strongly linked tooth loss to health and longevity. People who lose 5 or more teeth by the age of 65 have lower overall health and life expectancy. Conversely, retaining a full set of teeth by the age of 74 increases the odds that you’ll become a centenarian.
A window into underlying issues
It’s easy to see how early humans might have experienced a dramatic impairment in their chances of survival as a result of losing even a few teeth. But today, we have modern dentistry and state-of-the-art-technology to help out.
People might say, “so what?” If you lose a tooth today, you can get dental implants. Or wear dentures. In fact, you might not even have to face losing a tooth at all. Several interventions are available for dentists to help rescue or reinforce a damaged tooth.
The real concern, however, is that tooth loss results from various underlying reasons. Some of them might be genetic, or accidental. But there are often bigger problems at hand.
A diet that’s high in sugar is a frequent culprit behind tooth decay. The high concentration of sugar creates an acidic environment that dissolves enamel. And excessive sugar consumption in turn is linked to a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes.
You can replace teeth and save your smile. But that doesn’t change the unhealthy behaviors and habits that led to the problem and might be creating even worse complications in the rest of your body.
Following best practices
By the same logic, however, the early loss of teeth doesn’t have to be a predictor of lower life expectancy. If you take appropriate action, you can reverse those bad habits, and take measures to arrest a decline in your health before it’s too late.
Oral hygiene can serve as a keystone habit for your health. Just as you make it a point to brush and floss teeth regularly, start making it a routine to improve your diet.
As you brush your teeth in the evening, remind yourself that there will be no more midnight snacks. Check the temptation to indulge in sugary treats and soft drinks. Avoid untimely snacking if possible. If you must chew on something, make it a healthy snack and not something that will give your teeth an acid bath.
Be mindful of the condition of your mouth. Dry mouth can be linked to the consumption of tobacco or alcohol. It has to be a wake-up call to quit abusing these substances, not only for the sake of your teeth but for your long-term health.
Teeth are a bellwether for your overall health. Once you spot problems with your oral health, attend to them. And don’t stop there, but start making long-term changes. Eat a healthy diet, take better care of your body, and keep smiling until you’re a hundred or more.