The days when you could expect to lose most of your teeth as you aged are long gone, but the mouth can still show signs of ageing in many ways. The good news is that most of these are in your power to control.
If you're concerned about your appearance and want to hold back the years, talk to your dentist. They can give you advice about prevention and cosmetic dentistry treatments to help restore or enhance your smile.
Common signs of an ageing smile include:
- Tooth decay
- Wear and tear
- Yellow teeth
- Shifting teeth
- Tooth loss
- Metal fillings
- Receding gums
- Thin or wrinkled lips
Read more about each of these issues and how they may be prevented or treated.
Tooth decay is caused by bacteria in the mouth. Sugar and carbs in food and drink feed the bacteria, which build up on the teeth as plaque and release acids. These acids can wear down the surfaces of teeth over time, leading to cavities or other damage that may need a filling to fix.
Tooth decay can affect people of all ages, but its effects can be more visible with age. If you have frequently suffered from tooth decay across your lifetime, this can take its toll on the health and appearance of your teeth.
According to the National Study of Adult Oral Health 2017–18, the average number of decayed, missing and filled teeth (DMFT) increased from 10.3 teeth in 35–54 year olds to 19.4 teeth in 55–74 year olds and 24.4 teeth in Australians aged 75 and over.
If your teeth have been damaged or discoloured by decay, your dentist may discuss cosmetic option such as composite bonding or porcelain veneers to help cover its effects. Maintaining good oral hygiene every day and having a regular check-up and clean can help to prevent further decay.
Wear and tear
As well as tooth decay, tooth enamel can wear down over the years for other reasons, including:
- exposure to acids (from food and drink and stomach acids)
- pressure from teeth grinding or clenching (known as bruxism)
- biting or chewing hard objects, such as nuts, ice cubes and fingernails
- wear and tear from everyday use
Losing protective enamel can expose more of the dentine layer beneath, which is yellow in colour and more vulnerable to damage. As teeth lose some of their sensitivity with age, you may not notice the warning signs of a problem and may be more likely to need a corrective dental treatment such as a root canal.
Worn or weakened teeth may be restored to their former strength and appearance by fitting a dental crown or other custom restoration. Your dentist will also want to address the underlying cause of tooth wear, whether this involves improving your oral hygiene or wearing a splint to prevent teeth grinding at night.
While dentists will prioritise any issues with your oral health, the most common age-related dental concern is yellow or discoloured teeth. Teeth can naturally darken with age as the enamel wears down, but they can also be stained or discoloured by:
- food and drink with strong pigments (such as coffee, tea, red wine and sauces)
- side effects of certain medications
- trauma to the tooth
There are many products on the market that promise to whiten teeth, but the most effective and safe treatments are provided by dentists. In-chair teeth whitening can lighten teeth by up to several shades in a single visit, or your dentist may provide a home whitening kit tailored to your needs.
Not all types of discolouration can be treated by teeth whitening, however. Other options can include covering teeth with dental veneers or replacing discoloured fillings and other dental work. Your dentist will make sure you understand any risks involved so you can decide whether a cosmetic treatment is right for you.
You may find that the shape of your smile changes as you age, with teeth tending to shifting inwards or going crooked. This can happen as the bone in the upper and lower jaws that support your teeth gradually weaken. If you have any missing teeth, this can increase deterioration of the jaw.
Shifting teeth aren't only a cosmetic issue either. Teeth that are misaligned or don't bite together properly may also affect eating or speech, or lead to problems such as teeth grinding or jaw pain. The earlier an alignment issue is identified, the easier and more effective treatments are likely to be.
There is no upper age limit to braces, and your dentist may recommend orthodontic treatment to help straighten teeth that have shifted or bent out of alignment. Orthodontics can be a long-term treatment that requires regular appointments with your dentist to monitor your progress and make adjustments.
Alternatives to traditional braces include clear aligners or veneers, but these may not be suitable for more severe alignment problems.
Many Australians now keep most of their natural teeth all of their lives, but the average number of missing teeth naturally increases with age – from an average 3.6 missing teeth for 35–54 year olds to 8.8 missing teeth in 55–74 year olds and 13.2 missing teeth in those aged 75 or older. Around 21% of Australians over 75 have no natural teeth remaining.
Gaps in your smile can be the least of the problems a missing tooth can cause. Without support, the teeth on either side of a gap may bend out of shape over time. Multiple missing teeth may also affect your ability to eat or speak normally and the jaw bone may shrink without support from teeth roots, leading to a sunken appearance in the face.
Your dentist can discuss the different options for replacing a single tooth, multiple teeth or all of your teeth, depending on your preferences and your price range. Dental implants cost more up front, but they can be a permanent replacement and are the only option that will also support your jaw. Other options are a dental bridge and removable or implant-supported dentures.
Do you have visible metal fillings in your teeth? These are often associated with age, as most dentists now use tooth-coloured 'white' fillings made from composite resin or ceramic restorations for a more natural finish.
Metal amalgam fillings can last for 15 years or longer when you take good care of the underlying tooth, but some people choose to replace them with tooth-coloured fillings for aesthetic reasons, or because they are concerned about the presence of mercury in the filling.
Your dentist will make sure you understand the possible risks if you want to replace metal fillings, which can include damage to the tooth. Metal fillings need to be removed by a qualified professional following strict guidelines to prevent exposure to mercury and ensure its safe disposal.
It's not only your teeth that can show signs of ageing, but your gums too. Gums may recede over time as a consequence of gum disease or other oral hygiene issues, from brushing your teeth too roughly, or due to reduced collagen production.
Gums that have pulled back from the teeth (receded) can expose more of the tooth root, leading to increased sensitivity or teeth loosening. Dentists offer gum disease treatments to treat gingivitis or more advanced periodontitis and may discuss other treatments such as a gum graft if you want to restore lost gum tissue and protect your teeth roots.
Thin or wrinkled lips
The skin loses volume and elasticity with age as production of collagen and elastin reduce, and this can be particularly pronounced around the mouth. Smoking, pouting and drinking through straws can also contribute to wrinkling of the lips, as can sun damage.
Non-surgical cosmetic treatments such as injectable fillers can restore fullness to the lips and face, but these involve certain risks and may not be suitable if you have certain medical conditions. Beauty products such as lip serums and gloss can also contain compounds that stimulate blood flow to help fill out the lips.
All of these treatments are only temporary and will need to be repeated regularly to maintain a more youthful appearance. Quitting smoking and reducing sun exposure can help to reduce the signs of ageing in the lips and face.
Other ways to hold back the years
General tips for a more youthful smile include:
- Brushing your teeth twice a day, flossing daily and following a healthy diet to help keep your teeth and gums healthy and limit wear and tear
- Switching to an electric toothbrush if you find it difficult to use a manual toothbrush
- Quitting smoking to reduce teeth staining and lower your oral health risks
- Drinking plenty of water to prevent dry mouth, which contributes to oral health problems
- Avoiding chewing ice and other bad habits that can damage teeth
- Choosing a shade of lipstick to complement your smile and offset discoloured teeth
- Visiting the dentist for regular check-ups, hygiene treatments and oral cancer screenings
See a dentist in Sydney CBD
If you're interested in cosmetic dentistry treatments or other ways to help you preserve your smile, our dentists at Sydney CBD Dental can help. Call our friendly team today on (02) 9232 3900 or book an appointment online at a day and time that suits you.
1. Do L & Luzzi L 2019. Oral Health Status. p38-96. In: ARCPOH. Australia’s Oral Health: National Study of Adult Oral Health 2017–18. Adelaide: The University of Adelaide, South Australia.