One of the many challenges of mothering in midlife is coping with declining hormone levels just as our tween’s hormones are beginning to surge. But there’s another less talked-about health issue that shows up in middle age. As a dentist and mid-life mom myself, I deal with it daily. It’s the fact that our most complex and costly dental problems usually arise after we reach 40.
Most of us hit what I like to call critical mass in our early forties. There are a number of contributing factors:
- Typically, periodontal disease appears in your mid to late thirties. (But only if you’re at risk for it). It’s a chronic inflammatory disease that can have serious consequences. Without early intervention, the most serious consequences tend to appear in your forties.
- Teeth shift over time, tending to drift forward. By the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you may notice your teeth aren’t as straight as they used to be.
- Many a patient in their forties has asked me why their teeth suddenly seem to be “falling apart”. It’s not a coincidence. Like bones, teeth get more brittle with time. Fillings weaken them further, particularly large silver ones. And those of us from a certain generation had a lot of silver fillings placed as kids. So the stage is set for fractures. It’s usually in our fourth decade that the weakest ones start to break.
- Eating habits have had time to catch up with us. Some foods cause surface stains that gradually work their way into the enamel and become permanent. Other foods can slowly erode tooth enamel, exposing the darker layer underneath.
- Clenching, grinding, and periodontal disease can cause gum tissue to recede and bone around the teeth to dissolve, leaving us quite literally looking “long in the tooth”. At the same time, severe grinding can wear down your teeth to the point where they barely show when you smile. Not very attractive or youthful-looking.
Now, while all of that is going on, what’s happening with our kids? You guessed it. They’re gearing up for orthodontics (“braces”). Not only that but the older they get the less control you have over what they’re eating.
Tweens and teens are eating more junk food and sports drinks than ever before. In fact, this is the first time in my thirty year career that I’m seeing an increase in cavities among this age group.
So what’s a midlife mom to do? How do you manage when your most costly and complex dental needs are likely to occur alongside your kids? Here’s some of my best advice:
Tips For You
Make sure your dentist screens for periodontal disease at every checkup. If he or she does find signs of a problem, take recommendations seriously. Like diabetes, this is one disease that cannot be cured. But with early intervention and life-long management, it can be kept at bay. If you’re concerned, you can take this self-assessment at online and follow up with your dentist:
To prevent fractured teeth, have the weak ones crowned if that’s what your dentist recommends. Avoid chewing ice (a great way to make a small fractures big) and wear a night guard to protect against the ravages of clenching and grinding. It’s a fact that over 90% of us clench or grind in our sleep (usually we’re unaware).
If your smile is making you feel old, dentistry has plenty of options. Whitening is the most economical pick-me-up, but if you need a more extreme makeover, consider invisalign braces, cosmetic bonding or porcelain veneers. If you’re on a budget, you might be a candidate for a “snap-on-smile” at the fraction of the cost of braces or veneers.
Tips For Your Child(ren)
Limit juices and sports drinks (and of course, soda). They’re high in sugars but worse, they are very acidic. Constant consumption of acidic foods leads to “acid erosion” of tooth enamel. Tooth enamel eroded by acids becomes progressively thinner , exposing the soft yellow dentin layer underneath.
Juice can be diluted with water. Sugar free beverages help but don’t change the problem of acidity. The best options are plain milk or water.
If a grade school child is headed for braces, get them to the orthodontist sooner rather than later. In many cases, interceptive orthodontics can reduce the length and complexity of treatment. Interceptive care involves guiding jaw growth and positioning of teeth as they erupt instead of waiting until all the adult teeth are in place.
Always supervise your children’s home care. Our family orthodontist helped his kids brush and did their flossing for them until they were twelve years old. That might seem extreme. But in his experience children don’t have the maturity and dexterity they need to be effective until they hit their teens.
As much as possible, make sure your kids were a custom fitted sports guard. Peer pressure will tempt them to ditch the guard if the whole team doesn’t wear them. So it can be a struggle getting cooperation on this one. But nothing breaks my heart more than to see a young smile marred by a broken tooth. Especially when it could have been prevented.
Tips for the whole family
Few listen to me when I say this, but I’ll say it anyway: DON’T put off dental visits due to lack of insurance benefits. It happens all the time that when folks don’t have insurance, or they lose their coverage, they stop going for checkups.
Small, painless, relatively inexpensive problems become large, complicated and costly. I guarantee it. And if and when you DO get insurance, out of pocket expenses end up far greater than they would have been if you’d caught them early and paid for them yourself.
If the prospect of paying without the help of insurance seems unthinkable, find an office that offers third party financing and pay for your health care in installments. You already do this with your house, your car, and many other necessities. Companies like Care Credit make it easy to finance dental care and other health expenses with reasonable rates.
And remember, your children are watching you. Demonstrate good oral hygiene at home, and let them see that you go to the dentist regularly and they’re more likely to adopt and maintain good habits for life.
Carolyn Schweitzer is a family dentist of thirty years, mother to son, Adam, and wife to Mark. Motherhood began for her quite unexpectedly with a surprise pregnancy at 45. Now in her fifties, she chronicles her journey as a midlife mother at http://www.mommyinthemiddle.com. (Similarity between the names of our two websites was also unplanned!)