The straight talk on adult braces

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My mother is mad at me because I broke my retainer—which would be perfectly understandable … except that I’m 40 years old. “Do you know how much I paid for you to have straight teeth?” she screeches into the phone.

While she’s been asking me that since I was in sixth grade, I still have no idea how much she actually paid—the price seems to fluctuate based on her level of anger. Today, she claims it cost her “a bazillion dollars.”

A year ago, my permanent retainer—a flexible wire on the backside of my lower middle teeth—snapped off. It’s been there for decades, so I figured my perfect teeth were firmly in place. But as (bad) luck would have it, teeth care very little about conforming to the guys next to them, so little by little they’ve crept back into crooked shape. I could have followed my dentist’s advice and gone to an orthodontist, but that task dangled from the bottom of my to-do list, somewhere near completing my taxes and learning how to cook.

And while we’re being honest, it’s not just my lower teeth we’re talking about. I abandoned the removable retainer for my uppers when I was 20 years old (sorry, Mom), and developed some vampire-ish fangs as a result. The only adult I know who still wears her retainer is my mother, who got braces when she was in her late fifties. I thought it was weird at the time: Braces, like acne and bad hair, are a necessary evil for most kids, but what adult would willingly choose them? As it turns out, quite a few. According to the American Association of Orthodontists, the number of patients over the age of 18 who choose braces has nearly doubled in the past 30 years.

Savannah-based orthodontist Dr. Mark Dusek, of Broderick, Dusek & Deleon, identifies the two primary reasons his adult patients request braces. “It’s either because they needed them when they were younger, but their parents couldn’t afford them, or they never wore their retainers and their teeth moved.”

According to the American Association of Orthodontists, the number of patients over the age of 18 who choose braces has nearly doubled in the past 30 years. 

That certainly sounds familiar, but I was under the impression that teeth are like the rest of our bodies—the older we get, the more difficult they are to move—but Dusek assures me otherwise: Old and young teeth shift at about the same rate. On the bright side, Dusek says braces aren’t nearly as painful as they used to be. (I got them when I was 10, and remember telling my mother that it felt like I had chewed on a porcupine.) Advances in technology mean smaller brackets and metal wires that apply a much gentler pressure on the teeth. “Ninety-five percent of the time, patients will feel nothing when they get braces and when they go in for routine tightenings,” Dusek notes.

When it comes to treatment, adult patients have more options than ever before. Those who don’t care for the heavy metal look can choose braces constructed of clear, ceramic brackets connected to thin silver or white wires. Clear aligners are another option, which provide an entirely metal-free experience. The custom-made plastic trays are held in position with natural-colored attachments affixed to the teeth. While removable, the trays are designed to be worn throughout the entire treatment, only taken out for eating. Every couple of weeks, the trays are switched out for different shaped ones, gradually moving the teeth into place.

But do clear aligners work as well as the conventional metal tracks? Savannahian Kathy Forman, a retired speech and language pathologist, did not need braces as a child, but after she had her own children, who are now 13 and 15, her teeth began to shift. Gaps formed and she could tell that her bite was off. Since her kids were “horrified at the thought of their mother being a metal mouth,” Forman opted for Invisalign, a popular brand of clear aligners. Three months into her six-month treatment, she says she can already see the positive results taking shape. Forman admits that vanity was the primary reason for getting the fix, and thinks it was worth the investment. “No one noticed my teeth except for me, but I was sick of them being crooked,” she says. “Besides, I have a big smile—I want it to be nice.”

It’s human nature to want straight teeth, but adult braces have other benefits. According to Dr. Ryan Reeves of Savannah’s Beyond Exceptional Dentistry, our teeth also wear down from clenching, grinding, fillings, crowns and, let’s face it, getting older. All that, he says, can lead to thinning lips, slacking skin and deep creases between the lower lip and chin. “As time goes on, the bite collapses, which shrinks the lower third of your face,” says Reeves.

By straightening and moving teeth into the correct bite position, Reeves claims braces can make a patient look 10 to 15 years younger.

Straight teeth and a non-surgical facelift all in one? Sign me up.