Dentists get their teeth into challenges of the post-denture generation
Dentures are used by a much smaller fraction of the population than a couple of decades ago. Photograph: Getty Images
Dentistry is having to adapt its attitudes and treatments as more people keep their own teeth well into old age, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL
Here’s something to smile about: older people in Ireland are generally more likely to have their own teeth than in decades gone by. That’s according to a dental expert who has been evaluating a more “functional” approach to managing that trend.
“Over the last 30 years, there has been a big shift away from people losing all their teeth at a relatively early age to instead people keeping part of their dentition in older age,” says Prof Finbarr Allen, head of the Cork Dental School and Hospital at University College Cork (UCC).
Adult oral health survey figures suggest that in 1979, the prevalence of total tooth loss in people aged 65 and over in Ireland was 72 per cent, but this had dropped to 41 per cent by 2000-2002, says Allen, who has witnessed the trend during his own career in dentistry.
“When I was a student 25 years ago, about 30 per cent of the adult Irish population had no natural teeth – it was almost standard practice for people to wear complete dentures,” he says.
“But that has changed quite dramatically, and now while for people in their 80s there’s a fairly high chance that they will have lost all of their teeth, people in their 60s are more likely to have kept many of their own teeth. The challenge now [is for] as many older people as possible to maintain a healthy, natural and functioning dentition for life.”
Changes in environment and attitude
Prof Allen attributes the trend at least in part to changes in attitude in recent decades.
People didn’t expect to keep their teeth for life, so the dental treatment was often quite rudimentary: if you had a problem with a tooth then you got that tooth out, he says.
And if people came in with lots of dental decay, the solution was to remove the damaged teeth right away and give them dentures.”
Attitudes and treatments have changed substantially in the past couple of decades.
“As people became more tuned in to the importance of aesthetics and oral health, they became much more anxious to keep their teeth than to lose them. And we are moving from an emergency-led type of profession to a more demand-led approach.”
Allen has been evaluating a “functionally-oriented” approach to treating a person aged 65 or over who is missing some teeth.