For elderly people born before the 1940s, regular trips to the dentist weren't common. Dental disease was widespread, and in a time before fluoride, floss and dental implants, many people had dentures at a relatively early age. Dentures are used to replace teeth damaged by decay and periodontitis (gum disease). With advances in dentistry, a focus on preventative maintenance and widespread use of fluoride, the number of people with "false teeth" has declined. But even today, nearly one out of four people age 65 and older have lost all of their teeth, according to the American Academy of Periodontology.

"Younger generations are maintaining better oral hygiene and keeping their teeth longer; therefore the frequency of complete dentures has lessened over the years," says Dr. James Rodriguez, DDS, a Staten Island, New York, dentist who has been practicing general dentistry for more than 22 years. "However, improper dental care still leads to extensive tooth decay and gum disease, and dentures may be used to replace teeth that have been lost."

Who Needs Dentures?

Tooth decay and gum disease typically occurs when people don't see a dentist for routine maintenance. Many seniors don't have dental insurance, and Medicare typically doesn't pay for dental treatment and dentures (coverage varies by state), which exacerbates the problem.

Furthermore, certain medical conditions and prescription medications can cause oral health problems and accelerate tooth loss because they cause dry mouth and other oral health problems, making teeth and gums more susceptible to cavities and infections.

Common Denture Problems

A common problem among denture wearers is ill-fitting dentures, which cause pain. Pain is directly related to the way dentures fit. When a denture rests snugly against the gums and doesn't slide around, then pain shouldn't be an issue. But when dentures begin to rub against the gums, it leads to soreness and swelling. Left untreated, this can make wearing dentures intolerable.

"If dentures don't fit well and seniors experience pain, they are likely to eat less or eat softer foods. They also don't swallow the same way they used to," Dr. Rodriguez explains. "Not eating foods that they used to enjoy is another sign of unstable or uncomfortable dentures. Poor diet and lower nutritional intake could lead to a variety of health and digestive problems."

Furthermore, ill fitting dentures constantly rub on the gums and can create a callus, called an epulis, which requires oral surgery to remove.

Natural changes in the gums and jaw over time can be another factor that causes denture pain. Gums change, and over time bone underneath the gum can shrink. The change is progressive, so seniors don't notice it. But their dentures no longer fit properly.

Fixing Denture Discomfort

No matter what the cause, Ill-fitting dentures can be fixed by a dentist. Three techniques are typically used, Dr. Rodriguez says:

  • Relining. A liquid acrylic molds the denture closely to shape of the gums.
  • Recasting. The dentures can be re-made to get a better fit.
  • Mini-implants. This procedure is becoming more routine, and Dr. Rodriguez finds it extremely effective. Mini implants are inserted into the bone, to stabilize dentures. This minimally invasive procedure can typically be accomplished in one visit.

Taking Care of Dentures

False teeth require just as much as care as natural teeth. Dr. Rodriguez recommends the following tips for denture wearers:

  • Clean and brush dentures every day. Plaque and tarter can still build up just like on natural teeth.
  • Use a toothpaste and toothbrush specially designed for dentures. Regular toothpaste and brushes are abrasive enough to scratch the surface of dentures.
  • Soak dentures at night. Dentures may lose their shape if they are allowed to dry out. Remove the dentures, clean them and soak them in denture cleanser overnight.
  • Visit your dentist for regular hygiene checkups. Even people who have no natural teeth and wear full dentures should have their mouth examined annually for signs of gum disease and oral cancer, and also for proper denture fit.
  • Store dentures in a safe place. Dentures are delicate and may break if dropped even a few inches. When not wearing dentures, store them away from children and pets.