Calling someone "long in the tooth" is an unflattering way of saying they're getting old. The phrase refers to the effects of gum recession, in which the gums pull away from the teeth and cause them to appear longer. The problem, which makes the teeth vulnerable to disease as well as look unattractive, is a common problem for older people.
The most common cause for gum recession is periodontal (gum) disease. Bacteria and food particles, which make up dental plaque, trigger an infection. The deposits of plaque and calculus (hardened plaque) continue to fuel the infection as it continues to weaken gum tissue attachments.
As a result, the gums begin to lose their attachment to the teeth and pull away, exposing the root areas normally covered by the gums. Unlike the enamel-protected crowns (the parts of teeth you can see), the root is covered by a thin layer of material called cementum.
Although cementum offers less protection than enamel, this normally isn't a problem because the gums also act as a barrier against bacteria and other harsh aspects of the mouth environment. But without gum coverage, the root area becomes vulnerable to disease and is more prone to painful sensitivity.
Because gum disease is the main culprit, you can reduce your chances of gum recession by keeping your teeth clean of plaque through brushing and flossing, and regularly undergoing professional cleanings. If gum disease does occur, it's important to seek treatment as soon as possible: The earlier it's treated the more likely that any recessed gum tissues can regenerate.
If the recession is extensive, however, you may need clinical intervention to assist with its regrowth. This can be done by grafting tissue at the site that then serves as scaffold for new tissue to grow upon. Though effective, these microsurgical techniques are quite complex and involved.
So, if you suspect you have gum disease or recession, see your dentist as soon as possible for a full examination. It may be possible to restore your gums and enhance your smile.
If you would like more information on protecting your gum health, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Gum Recession.”