Last month, I got a full set of x-rays from the dentist. After thirty minutes of biting down and gagging on those plastic things, the stark white profile images of my teeth were on a computer screen. “You see that?” the dentist said, pointing to black triangles that gaped between the bases of almost all my teeth, “you have bone loss typical of an older person. There should be more bone surrounding your teeth and their roots. You have the mouth of a sixty year-old.”
I was shocked. How can my mouth be thirty years older than I am?
According to Dr. Leonard Hayflick in How and Why We Age, we’re all like clock shops. Our organs and tissues are like separate clocks running at different speeds. He believes our biological age is an average of how fast or slow the clocks in our organs and cells run. That’s why it’s so difficult to address and reverse aging. It’s a different process with slightly different results for each person. An average woman in her sixties might have a weakened jaw like mine, but some sixty year old women have the bone density of a thirty year old. A dentist who only looks at my teeth might assume I’m sixty, but I don’t have grey hair. I spent a lot of time in the sun and my skin is beginning to show fine lines, but many people still ask me if I’m a student at the local university.
If it is difficult to guess a person’s chronological age, Hayflick points out that determining biological age is impossible. Is cell damage we attribute to aging due to environment or behavior instead? Jaw bone density loss is linked to bacterial infections in our gums, so older people with weakened immune systems are more susceptible, but young people who have a history of forgetting to floss (me), might develop those same problems at an early age.
Another potential cause is the invasive braces I had as a teenager; I had four teeth yanked out, not counting my wisdom teeth, my upper jaw was gradually widened by a small spreader installed in my mouth, and my teeth were moved into place over the course of three years by monthly wire tightening.
Bone loss could also be in my genes. Mom says her dentist has commented over the years on her rapidly aging jaw.
Since I can’t do anything about genes, I brush twice a day with a sonic toothbrush, floss, and use a special mouthwash. I’m also going to an appointment a periodontist so I can find out about my sixty year old gums. In the meantime, I found an interesting blog post from a dentist. Here’s the link and I’ll summarize it below.
The process has only been attempted in those with traumatic tooth loss. Bone marrow is removed from the patient’s hip, it is coaxed in a lab to grow into several cell types, including stem cells, and inserted into the jaw. According to the study, “Patients who received tissue repair cells had greater bone density and quicker bone repair than those who received traditional guided bone regeneration therapy.” Who knows, maybe as a sixty year old I’ll get my thirty year old jaw by winding back the clock.
Until then, I’ll keep flossing.