We Americans go to great lengths trying to “fix” ourselves as each new year begins. While the pandemic has restricted some activities, you can still change your eating regimen, exercise more, and take better care of your skin to avoid the signs of aging.
But what about teeth? Is there an age after which you’re too old to straighten them? Must you simply live with the smile you have in perpetuity, or is there a get-out-of-jail card you can use to finally get those teeth looking great in adult life?
Good news. As long as you have (or can achieve) fairly healthy gums, have little bone loss going on, and possess a desire to correct what nature put off-kilter in your mouth, making the investment to straighten your teeth past the age of 50 can rock your world, as well as offer a huge boost to your self-esteem.
No. I am not an orthodontist and this is not a commercial. I am, however, a pushing-70 gal who just did a happy dance in her orthodontist’s office after a 16-month teeth straightening, palate-broadening, teeth-gleaming experience that left me smiling bigger and better than ever. First, let’s study the collective wisdom about having straight teeth—not so much for looks but for health as well.
According to the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO), you are never too old for orthodontic treatment. While there are variables to be considered when an orthodontist considers crafting your customized treatment plan, age is rarely a deciding factor.
Today, 1 in three orthodontic patients is an adult. My orthodontist says his adult clientele easily makes up 40% of his business, with kids taking up the rest of his chairs. And it’s the same physiological process that moves teeth through bone whether you’re an adolescent or entering your golden years.
Put simply, teeth move in response to forces being placed on them over time. And while treatment may take a little longer than it does for your teenage counterparts (we are, after all, no longer growing), nothing can keep teeth from moving through bone when either braces or aligners are applied.
Another article in the Stanford Press by Sandra Kahn and Paul Erlich takes survey data from 1998 and suggests that as much as a fifth of the U.S. population has significant malocclusion, over half of which require at least some degree of orthodontic intervention. Today, up to 70 percent of U.S. children will wear braces before adulthood.
But what was the world like before braces came along? It seems our ancestors did not suffer from crooked teeth to the same extent we do today. Fossil records indicate that crooked teeth developed in humans over time. Evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman notes the pattern in his book, The Story of the Human Body, “Most of the hunter-gatherers had nearly perfect dental health. Apparently, orthodontists and dentists were rarely necessary in the Stone Age.” This all had to do with diet (humans began eating softer foods) and industrialization. Fascinating topic.
It’s true that adults present some issues kids don’t—such as fillings, missing teeth, crowns, misshapen or worn teeth, dental disease, clenching, or teeth-grinding, all of which can affect the outcome of treatment. But an orthodontist will address those issues with you, coordinating with your dentist to get your teeth and gums into shape before the straightening process begins.
He or she can also advise you when a bit of cosmetic dentistry might help replace whatever is missing. What you may not have thought about, however, is how having straight teeth can offer you an opportunity for more complete dental care. Teeth that are uncrowded can be flossed and cleaned more thoroughly, and this alone can prevent other dental issues from occurring or recurring as you age.
Healthline’s David Mills, in his article, "At Age 64 I’m Getting Braces for the First Time. Here’s Why," tells his own teeth-correcting story, noting how many adults have either lost a tooth, stopped wearing their retainers after having braces long ago, had previous dental work that’s causing problems, or are simply showing the wear and tear after decades of dental work.
Teeth can—put simply—wear down or move back to where they felt most comfortable years ago. He cites an American Dental Association survey reporting on the impact bad or crooked teeth can have, indicating about 25 percent of the 15,000 adults who responded avoided smiling because of their teeth’s appearance.
In the past, the teeth and gums of older adults may have simply been too far gone for braces, or perhaps many people simply lacked the resources to look into it when they were younger. Because of today’s superior dental care, fluoridated water, and preventive measures, teeth are lasting longer than ever. How many of us boomers visited a grandparent who left their “teeth” in the bathroom basin when we were visiting them as teenagers? It was the exception to the rule back then to even have a full set of your original teeth by age 65.
Each case is, of course, different. By the time I was 13, my upper teeth grew into “fangs” (the two lateral incisors next to my front teeth) for which I was taunted not just by my brothers, but also by kids at school. As a result, I routinely covered my smile with my hand.
Worried about how I’d ever land a husband someday with such an anomaly, my parents sent me to an orthodontist. This was back in the ‘60s, a time when dental professionals routinely pulled healthy teeth to make room for the rest (more rarely resorted to now). Braces were applied, and for a time my moniker went from “Dracula” to “Silver Mouth.” But by age 15 they came off, revealing a big-beautiful smile I never knew I had. My lowers, even more crooked than my uppers, were never addressed.
Fast forward and by the time I entered mid-life, my uppers began to slightly “cave” due to the lack of support those deleted teeth might have offered. My lowers, still a crooked mess, followed suit. I thought there was not much I could do—that is until an adult neighbor of mine told me about her ongoing Invisalign treatment (clear aligners you can remove for meals and special occasions) to correct the space between her front teeth.
Her orthodontist offered a no-cost, tech-savvy evaluation of my teeth. I opted for a budget-friendly payment plan, and I was off to the teeth-perfecting races. After just a few months, I was to find that flossing was getting easier. More months went by and I found myself pushing out a hearty laugh without being self-conscious about my lowers looking like God threw them into my mouth just for fun. With some whitening, I am told my new smile now takes years off my looks as well—something that is always music to my aging ears.
Bottom line? Most orthodontists offer free consultations to give you a full evaluation of what can be done to get your smile and dental health in tip-top shape. You need not relegate yourself to a smile you’re not happy with for the long term. Should you be a good candidate for braces and/or aligners, however, I will be there in spirit—doing that “happy dance” after seeing just how beautiful your teeth can look.