As we grow older, our teeth and gums go through gradual changes. One common change many adults notice is the development of gaps or spaces between their teeth. There are several reasons this happens more often as we age. Understanding the causes of gapped teeth can help you protect your oral health.
Changes in gum tissue and bone
One major factor that allows gaps to form is receding gums and underlying bone. The gums and jawbone provide critical support to the teeth, holding them firmly in position. As we age, they can recede and shrink for several reasons:
Reduced saliva production
- Saliva contains important compounds like calcium, phosphate, and fluoride to strengthen tooth enamel. It also washes away food debris and neutralizes damaging acids.
- Saliva flow tends to decrease as we get older due to reduced functioning of salivary glands. This leaves the teeth and gums vulnerable.
- Dry mouth becomes more common with age due to medications, health conditions, and hormonal changes.
- Lack of lubricating saliva allows plaque to build up and irritate the gums. It also increases risk for cavities between teeth.
Development of periodontal disease
- Periodontal or gum disease results from chronic bacterial infection of the gums and bone around teeth.
- Toxins from plaque bacteria trigger inflammation and destruction of the periodontal tissues.
- Risk increases with age as gums recede and pockets deepen around teeth, allowing more bacteria to accumulate.
- Periodontal disease impacts 47% of adults 30 years and older, increasing to 70% in those 65 years and older.
- The breakdown of gum and bone tissues leads to recession, exposure of tooth roots, and widening gaps between teeth.
Aggressive tooth brushing habits
- Brushing too vigorously over time, especially with stiff bristles, can wear away gums.
- Sensitivity and receding gums are signs of overzealous brushing.
- Focus brushing on the tooth surfaces and avoid sawing back and forth across gums.
- Hormonal changes in post-menopausal women decrease estrogen levels, which help protect bone density.
- Reduction in estrogen is associated with increased gum inflammation and higher risk for periodontal bone loss.
- Important minerals like calcium and vitamin C help maintain healthy gums and bone. Deficiencies due to poor diet increase risk of tissue breakdown.
- Vitamin D is also essential for jawbone strength and density. Older adults often don’t get enough sun exposure, a key source of natural vitamin D.
As gums recede over time, gaps form between the gumline and the teeth. Receding gums are a clear sign of existing or emerging periodontal disease.
The upper and lower jawbones provide the solid foundation that teeth are anchored in. As we age, the density and volume of the jawbones gradually diminishes due to:
- Declining growth hormone and sex steroid levels
- Use of certain prescription medications
- Osteoporosis and other medical conditions
- Poor nutrition lacking key bone-supporting vitamins and minerals
- Long-term use of tobacco and excessive alcohol
This steady loss of jawbone is called resorption. It causes the ridges of the jawbones to shrink, creating gaps between teeth previously held tightly together. Ill-fitting dentures that aren’t properly relined and allow pressure on gums can also contribute to accelerated bone loss.
The cumulative effects of grinding, clenching, and years of chewing can slowly erode tooth enamel. This gradual attrition causes the biting surfaces of teeth to become thinner and flatter over time. It also shortens the overall length of teeth.
- Tooth wear occurs as top and bottom teeth make contact over decades during eating and other jaw motions.
- Acidic foods and beverages also dissolve enamel over many years, especially in the absence of sufficient saliva.
- As this process advances, spaces open up between teeth as their points of contact are reduced.
- Older adults often display significant tooth wear after a lifetime of use. The amount of attrition depends on diet, bruxism habits, and enamel thickness.
Missing teeth is increasingly common as we age, due to dental decay, advanced periodontal disease, injuries, and other oral health problems. When teeth are lost, the remaining teeth can drift and tilt into the open spaces that are created.
- Long-term absence of teeth allows shift of adjacent and opposing teeth.
- This gradual movement spreads out the remaining teeth, preventing tight contacts and leaving gaps along the gumline.
- These gaps appear even when no active gum recession is present.
- The more teeth that are missing, the greater the potential spaces.
Some people are more prone to developing age-related gaps between teeth based on:
- Genetic predisposition
- Gender – women have heightened risk due to hormonal influences
- Heredity and ethnicity – some groups tend to have thinner jawbones
- Behavioral factors like smoking and infrequent dental visits
- Grinding and clenching that amplifies wear
- Gum disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and autoimmune disorders
- Taking certain prescription medications long-term
Knowing your risk profile allows you to take preventive action to help maintain your natural teeth.
In addition to detracting from an attractive smile, gaps between teeth can lead to a number of oral health issues:
- Tooth decay – Food debris readily packs into gaps, increasing decay risk, especially when saliva flow is low.
- Periodontal disease – Plaque and tartar also accumulate around gaps, accelerating gum infections.
- Tooth sensitivity – Gaps can expose vulnerable areas of tooth roots and dentin.
- Loose teeth – Widening gaps indicate deteriorating bone support for teeth.
- Tooth shifting – Teeth drift and tip into gaps, altering alignment.
- Temporomandibular joint disorders – Misaligned teeth increase wear and tear on jaw joints.
- Impaired chewing and speech – Gaps reduce chewing force and can cause embarrassing whistling sounds.
Preventing and treating gaps
While some degree of gapping is expected with age, there are ways to minimize excessive spacing:
- Maintain meticulous daily oral hygiene to control plaque buildup.
- Have regular dental cleanings every 6 months to monitor gum health.
- Get prompt treatment for emerging gum infections before major damage occurs.
- Have an occlusal guard made if nighttime teeth grinding is suspected.
- Replace missing teeth in a timely manner to prevent drifting and shifting.
- Consider cosmetic dentistry like orthodontics or veneers to close gaps for confidence.
- Have dentures properly fitted and realigned annually to reduce bone loss risks.
With diligent oral care and early intervention for problems, significant gapping can often be avoided. But some minor spacing is a normal part of the aging process.
When to see your dentist
Schedule a dental appointment right away if you notice:
- Sudden changes in tooth or bite positions
- New unexplained spaces between teeth
- Increased sensitivity, pain, or swelling
- Bleeding, inflamed, or receding gums
- Damage to teeth, gums, or jaw from any injury
Report concerning symptoms promptly for evaluation. Waiting allows minor issues to evolve into complex problems requiring extensive treatment.
Depending on the diagnosed causes and extent of gapping, your dentist may recommend:
- Dental fillings or inlays – Repair defects in enamel to protect tooth structure.
- Dental bonding – Reshapes and rebuilds chipped or uneven teeth.
- Dental crowns – Reinforce and restore teeth compromised by decay or excessive wear.
- Bridges – Non-removable replacement teeth cemented to neighboring natural teeth.
- Dental implants – Titanium posts surgically inserted into jawbone that fuse over time to support a crown.
- Removable partial dentures – Plastic and metal partial plates to replace multiple missing teeth.
- Full dentures – Remove all remaining teeth and replace with removable upper and lower dentures.
- Orthodontics – Devices like Invisalign or braces that move teeth to close gaps.
- Gum and bone grafts – Surgery to cover exposed roots and stimulate bone regrowth.
- Oral hygiene training – Learning proper home care techniques.
Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each option with your dentist to decide on the optimal treatment plan based on your specific needs and goals.
Maintaining your dental work
After undergoing treatment to fix gaps between teeth, consistent care is vital for long-lasting results:
- Stick to excellent oral hygiene with twice-daily brushing, daily flossing, and use of hygiene aids like water flossers.
- Have professional cleanings on schedule every 6 months.
- Wear retainers or night guards religiously if prescribed.
- Attend regular exams to monitor conditions and quickly address any emerging problems.
- Avoid tobacco products, grinding, nail-biting, and other damaging habits.
- Follow any special home care instructions provided, like using medicated rinses.
With diligent home care and ongoing dentist visits, restorations to close gaps can be preserved for many years. This helps you get the most value from dental treatments.
Outlook with proactive care
Some minor gapping as you age is normal, but major tooth movement and spacing is not inevitable if you take actions to care for your oral health over the long term:
- Start addressing risks like gum disease early before extensive damage occurs.
- Promptly replace any teeth you lose to prevent destabilizing your bite.
- Follow your dentist’s recommendations for checkups and procedures.
- Modern cosmetic and restorative dental treatments can effectively minimize gaps.
- With daily prevention at home and routine professional care, your teeth can remain intact and attractive for life.
While aging impacts your teeth and smile, keeping your natural teeth in good shape is achievable at any age. Discuss concerns with your dentist and develop a comprehensive care plan. With the right strategy, you can enjoy properly aligned, gap-free teeth for years to come.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do gaps form when my gums look healthy?
Even with no obvious gum disease, age-related bone loss beneath the gums allows subtle shifting and spacing. Also, missing teeth, malformed tooth structures, and excessive wear create gaps without gum issues. Have regular dental exams to identify problems early.
Can gaps be fixed if I have osteoporosis?
Yes, depending on the severity of bone loss. Options like partial dentures, bonding, crowns, or implants can often improve spacing. But osteoporosis may limit some treatment choices. Work closely with your dentist for the optimal solution given your needs and level of bone density.
Do crowns or veneers stay in place better than bonding?
Crowns and veneers bond more durably to teeth than direct composite resin bonding, which is more prone to chipping and discoloration over time. But dental bonding costs less initially. Discuss the longevity of different materials with your dentist.
Why do my front teeth whistle when I talk now?
New gaps between front teeth can cause air leakage and whistling sounds when speaking. This is especially true for sibilant sounds like “s”. Orthodontics, bonding or crowns can close these spaces and eliminate embarrassing whistling.
Can I just get braces on my top teeth to fix gaps?
Fixing only one arch often leads to problems with opposite teeth. But Invisalign allows precise control over which teeth are moved. It straightens your whole bite gradually without brackets. Consult an orthodontist about options to close gaps.
Some degree of gapping between teeth is common as we age. But significant gaps can threaten your oral health and detract from an attractive smile. Through daily prevention and working closely with your dentist, excessive spacing issues can be minimized or corrected. Many effective treatments are available these days to help restore your teeth. While aging impacts your teeth, keeping them properly aligned and your smile vibrant is within reach. With a proactive plan, you can enjoy properly aligned and gap-free teeth well into your later years.