We live in a culture that believes that braces are solely for the benefit of the young. Teenagers get them to straighten out crooked teeth so they can smile confidently in adult life. And the rare adults that get them either didn’t have access to orthodontic treatment when they were young or have some professional motive, like wanting to be a model.
Braces, though, offer more than mere cosmetic function. They’re also essential for keeping your teeth healthy and protecting them as you get older. Teens who get them tend to have fewer oral health problems in their forties, fifties and beyond.
But why is this? What possible role could braces have in preventing tooth decay and gum disease?
You can’t brush what you can’t reach
Let’s say that you have seriously crooked bottom teeth, covered by your lips. For the most part, you don’t even think about them. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Well, not so fast. There’s a problem, you see. Crooked teeth create all sorts of nooks, crannies and crevices between teeth. And, here, bacteria can thrive, able to multiply and churn out dangerous acid to their heart’s content.
Short-term, the mouth is quite good at defending itself against bacterial invaders. But over time, the germs tend to win. They create cavities in your tooth enamel and weasel their way down below the gum line, creating all kinds of nasty infections. Eventually, they can even start whittling away at the bone that holds teeth in place, leading to tooth loss.
What’s so remarkable about this process, though, is how easy it is to solve. It all comes down to mechanical leverage. If the bristles of your toothbrush can come into contact with all the surfaces of your teeth above the gum line, then you can protect yourself. And to do that, all you really need is straight teeth. That’s why braces are so effective.
Why don’t more older adults get braces?
If avoiding oral health problems is as simple as getting braces, why aren’t more older adults doing it?
Well, part of it relates to longstanding orthodontic best practices. Many practitioners believe that the ideal time to change the position of teeth is in adolescence – a period in which the jawbones are still developing and changing shape.
The overriding worry is that older adults don’t have the same level of oral plasticity. Their bones are more rigid and brittle and have stopped developing, and so braces are liable to be less effective. Plus, braces results tend to be excellent when applied soon after adult teeth come through. You often can’t tell that a person once had braces if they got them as a teen.
Strangely, though, practice does not bear this out. Yes – the bones of older adults have stopped growing. But that doesn’t mean that adaptation cannot occur. Teeth can still shift positions, even in older mouths.
The way braces work is kind of strange. At the macro level, all you feel is the pressure of the wire pushing on your teeth. Below the gum, however, is where the magic happens. The root of the tooth pushes against the bone, causing it to dissolve. Over time, new bone grows around the back of the tooth’s root, securing it in position. It’s like pushing a big spade through dense treacle.
This process tends to be slower in older adults, but it still occurs. The body has a natural tendency to want to encapsulate the teeth, no matter where they happen to be. It’s one of the miracles of biology.
Braces technology is also much better than it was in the past. The treatment period is shorter. And there are far more options. Managing braces is easier than for previous generations, with many of the traditional troubles falling by the wayside.
So what have we learned?
Essentially, we’ve discovered two things.
First, older adults can get braces to change the shape of their teeth – they just work a little slower.
And second, they’re not just cosmetic. Straight teeth can actually help to protect your oral health long term by eliminating nooks and crannies where germs can multiply unimpeded.
Braces also offer a host of other benefits that we haven’t even touched upon here, such as improving your elocution and improving your bite to reduce enamel abrasion. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of them.
Once you straighten your teeth, you’re far more protected against gum disease. And, ultimately, this reduces tooth loss as you get older.