Old age and tooth loss often went hand-in-hand. Dentures were an accepted and expected part of aging, even centuries ago as evidenced by tales of the most famous dentures of all: those worn by George Washington.
Innovations in dental hygiene and professional care now make it possible for many people to retain their natural teeth throughout their lives. “People with teeth live 10 years longer on average than people without teeth,” notes Dr. Karen Harris of KJH General and Cosmetic Dentistry. And for those who can’t keep their own teeth, new options exist that are making tooth replacement more comfortable and realistic.
“(Dentures) were aesthetically pleasing, but they have functional problems resulting in the use of creams and adhesives,” says Dr. Roy Bedrock of Clayton Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. “Also, long-term denture use results in facial bone loss and inadequate chewing efficiency, resulting in chewing softer foods and a poor diet.”
Harris agrees that traditional full sets of dentures are no longer the standard of care. “I do about three (sets of dentures) per year,” she says, a number unheard of three or four decades ago. She also notes that excessive use of denture adhesive can pose potential health risks due to the absorption of zinc and other adhesive ingredients.
“Today, dental implants are the preferred treatment,” Bedrock says. “Dental implants look and function like natural teeth, are fixed in place, and stimulate bone production.” Because implants allow patients to continue chewing with very close to their normal amount of force, a regular diet is maintained and nutrition doesn’t suffer.
“Implants can be utilized to offer stability to a removable prosthesis or they can be used as a foundation for supporting something that’s fixed and non-removable,” says Dr. Michael Noble of the Oral Facial Surgery Institute and chairman of the division of oral and maxillofacial surgery at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center.
Cost is one of the very few drawbacks to implants in conjunction with fixed or removable protheses, Noble notes. However, with the advent of adjunctive technologies like bone grafting, implants are the best option for almost all patients, whether the implants are combined with other prostheses or not. “Even if one couldn’t afford the extreme treatment of having enough implants to place something fixed, a lesser number of implants in combination with something removable would be superior just to the removable prosthesis with no implant support,” Noble says.
Dental implants involve placing a small titanium post into the bone socket of the missing tooth. Over the course of several weeks, the post integrates with the existing bone, providing a secure anchor for the artificial tooth, which is affixed to the post. An implant may include a single tooth or several anchored to the integrated post. “When you’re replacing teeth, the first approach at the top of the list should be implants,” Noble says. “Whether it’s a single tooth, multiple teeth or all your teeth.”