Smile, as toothless folk bite back

More older people are seeking treatment to replace missing teeth and regain their sparkle

A lesson that deep-sea fishing enthusiast S.H. Seah, 72, learnt after he started wearing dentures was this: "If you're going to vomit on a boat, better take out your dentures."

Otherwise, you risk losing them, said the retiree. His wife, 70, a senior radiographer, had warned him to take care of his teeth when he was young, but he eventually lost them because of tooth decay and gum problems. Their daughter, 33, is a senior market researcher.

Mr Seah started wearing partial dentures at the age of 30 and full dentures at 50. "I have done bridges before but they soon collapsed," he said of the false teeth.

Getting dental implants meant he had to undergo bone grafting, which he did not want. Dentures thus became his only choice.

He has no regrets though. "In the past, with my real teeth, I often had toothache. I couldn't eat high-fibre or chewy food."


PHOTO: COURTESY OF S.H. SEAH

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In the past, with my real teeth... I couldn't eat high-fibre or chewy food. Now, I can play golf, go deep-sea fishing, talk to people and sing karaoke.

MR S.H. Seah (above), 72, a retiree and deep-sea fishing enthusiast

He now enjoys food like cuttlefish and fish head curry, as well as all kinds of fruit or vegetables. "Now, I can play golf, go deep-sea fishing, talk to people and sing karaoke."

Like Mr Seah, more older people are becoming aware of the impor- tance of getting dental treatment to replace their missing teeth.

A recent study of about 5,000 Singaporeans aged 60 or above found that three in 10 people in this age group have no teeth.

Most of these toothless people use dentures, it said. While new treatments have surfaced, dentures are still common as they are the cheapest option.

A check with the National Dental Centre Singapore (NDCS) showed that 2,127 patients received denture treatment there last year. "Compared to 1,697 patients in 2014 and 1,414 patients in 2011, this is a significant increase," said Dr Valerie Tey Hwee Shinn, a registrar at the pros- thodontic unit of the NDCS department of restorative dentistry.

The Community Health Assist Scheme and Pioneer Generation subsidies, which were launched in 2012 and 2014, are likely the main contributing factors for this increase.

Demand for the pricier implant treatments at NDCS - fewer than 550 last year - has been fairly constant in the past five years, she said.

Dr Tay Chong Meng, an associate consultant at the University Dental Cluster, National University Hos- pital, said there is an estimated 10 per cent increase over the past year in the number of older people seeking treatment to replace lost teeth.

People in their 60s tend to be more willing to try implants, while those in their 70s and older are more conservative and prefer dentures, he added.

A check with three private dental clinics also showed that more older people are seeking treatment for missing teeth. However, their patients want the pricier treatments.

Dr Lynette Ng, the clinical director and prosthodontist at The Dental Studio, said about half of its older patients choose implants, which last longer than dentures.

Dr Ho Kok Sen, an oral and maxi- llofacial surgeon with Specialist Dental Group, said that as people become more affluent and educated, they are more aware of how replacement teeth can help maintain their quality of life.

Missing teeth not only affects one's appearance but, more importantly, it also affects one's comfort and ability to do daily tasks.

"When one has missing teeth, especially a row of them, the ability to articulate clearly and audibly is impaired," said Dr Ho.

"If the back teeth are missing, it affects the ability to chew, forcing one to go on a soft diet and possibly give up eating fibrous food or crunchy fruits."

Missing teeth can also sometimes cause discomfort.

Dr Jerry Lim of Orchard Scotts Dental said a patient in her 50s, who lived with no upper back molars for several years, suffered from headaches and neck pain.

When he saw her, her jaw line had changed due to the loss of support from the back teeth.

She was treated with implants, which restored her dental function and improved her appearance.

Those who still have teeth should visit the dentist regularly and practise good oral hygiene every day.

"Many people assume that there's no problem if they don't feel pain," said Dr Lim. "And even when they experience pain, they assume that once it goes away, they won't need to see the dentist."

However, that is when the dental problem becomes more severe. For instance, gum disease, which is caused by a build-up of plaque on the teeth, causes no pain in the beginning. But when the pain comes, it may be too late to save your teeth.

Dr Lim said: "Gum problems are on the rise as we are living longer and keeping our teeth longer."

Dr Tay said no tooth replacement option should be regarded as permanent.

"All prostheses require maintenance and have a lifespan determined by the quality of that maintenance," he added.

Technical complications can occur with dental implant replacements, while dentures and bridges have to be replaced over time.

To avoid losing their teeth, Dr Tay added, people should take good care of their teeth and gums. Natural teeth are by far the best, as they are meant to last a lifetime if one takes good care of them.

SEE False teeth – nothing but the tooth

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Smile, as toothless folk bite back'. Print Edition | Subscribe