By Gwen Dawkins
A little oral history about me: As a child and tween, my mouth was a mess. By fourth grade, it was obvious I’d need braces, but my baby teeth wouldn’t budge, so my parents were advised to “wait.” My baby teeth didn’t cooperate, so at age 14, I had 13 teeth pulled in preparation for the braces I would don for the next four years. I didn’t really want braces, but with one front tooth turned almost vertically and several others squeezed into a second row, like a shark, I needed them desperately.
Braces are a pain both literally and figuratively: each adjustment creates days of pain and discomfort; foods like popcorn, chips, whole apples and gum are expressly off-limits; and it’s pretty difficult to appear elegant when greens, nuts, and wet bread are lodged for all to see. But most hurtful to my teenaged ego was all of the name-calling: “metal mouth,” “the cheese grater,” and “brace face,” to name a few. But when the braces came off, my teeth were unimaginably straight and so smooth they felt like butter against my tongue –– not to mention the major boost I got in the looks department.
Fast forward forty-plus years: my teeth have moved semi-substantially and I got braces again right before my 57th birthday. I’d been thinking about it for years, but I kept visualizing all of the events I wanted to attend and the photos I’d be in over the next year or two –– and I wanted to do those things without braces. I also worried that my teenage sons, who have beautiful, straight teeth, would be embarrassed. I wondered if people would take me seriously as an adult or whether they’d be mesmerized by my “grill” instead of my words.
Adult Braces On The Rise
But getting braces as an adult is not as unusual as it once was. In fact, of the approximately 4 million Americans with braces, one in four are adults. Plus, today’s traditional braces are bonded to the teeth, (available in clear, stainless steel, gold, and lots of fun colors) and much less obtrusive than those of long ago. Not surprisingly, clear aligners, such as Invisalign and Smile Direct are estimated to make up almost 50 percent of the orthodontia market among adults. I chose clear, traditional braces for one simple reason: I cannot be trusted. Clear aligners, which are thin and flexible clear “trays” that fit over the teeth, are meant to be worn 22 hours per day. If given the option to remove something that makes my speaking voice difficult to understand and feels uncomfortable and is easy to lose? That’s three strikes –– I know I’d take them out more than I’m supposed to –– and then my teeth would still be crooked, and I’d be out $5,000 with nothing to show for it. But that’s just me.
Whether considered a need to correct alignment and function or an aesthetic enhancement, orthodontic treatments are expected to continue to grow globally substantially over the next several years. If you’re considering the treatment for yourself, it’s never too late to move teeth. Here are some viewpoints from other women who got braces during midlife:
Aleta Williams, Grenada, Mississippi
“Growing up, my older sisters both had braces, but my parents couldn’t afford another set for me. They told me my teeth weren’t ‘bad enough.’ I was jealous. I thought about getting braces for 30 years and finally got them for the first time at age 67. I thought I would die. Chewing was so awkward, almost like walking with two left feet. I thought ‘I’ll barely eat. I’ll lose so much weight.’ Wrong! For the first year, I suffered each time I got them tightened. But I tried to have fun with them, choosing colorful rubber bands and brackets to suit my mood. I got them off at aged 69. I expected to be completely thrilled, but I have mixed feelings about the results. I like that my teeth are straighter, but I don’t believe my bite is correct now. Sometimes it’s hard to chew my food and for some reason, food seems to get stuck between my teeth and upper lip –– which didn’t happen before. Overall, I am satisfied –– I just wish I had done it sooner.”
Hermenia Martinez, San Jose, California
“I got braces at age 48 after I broke a molar while eating a piece of cake. My dentist had actually been warning me for about 20 years that my bite was off and I needed to get braces because my teeth were going to keep moving and get worse. But my teeth weren’t really crooked, so I didn’t worry about it. However, once I broke my tooth, I got it fixed and got braces immediately. I decided to go with stainless steel braces because they’ve been working successfully for decades. At first, I was embarrassed about my braces and smiled with my lips shut. But after three or four months, I practically stopped thinking about them. One thing I think about a lot is food getting stuck in my teeth. It’s embarrassing, so I keep a toothbrush with me at all times. My favorite products are the GUM Soft-Picks. They’re small like a toothpick but flexible with little bristles. They’re easy to carry and they can reach in between the brackets. I love them. I have inspired my boyfriend, who got braces one month after I did. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see my orthodontist during the Covid-19 shutdown and my teeth moved too much. Now it will take another four to six months to get them back into the place they need to be to remove them. Although the extra time is disappointing, this whole process was definitely worth it. I could tell my bite was improving after the first few weeks.”
Sue Maguire, Los Gatos, California
“I was 49-years-old when I got braces for the first time. My dentist explained that our teeth shift as we age and recommended I get them to improve my bite and prevent further problems with my gums and teeth. I finally pulled the trigger when my three kids were done with their braces. I felt like finally, it was ‘my turn.’ At first, it was an awkward feeling of foreign hardware in my mouth. Chewing was difficult and felt like eating would never feel normal again –– eventually, it became ‘normal’. At restaurants, I search the menu for the softest options –– mushroom risotto has become my new favorite dish. It’s hard to keep my teeth clean. I feel like I’m always picking at my teeth either with my tongue, a toothpick, or my finger to sweep out the caught food. It’s not a pretty sight. A Waterpik is a ‘must-have’ for cleaning teeth with braces. Now I am onto wearing rubber bands –– which was also painful at first, but again, I’ve adjusted. I’m excited to get to the finish line! I’m not sure when that will be, but I know if I’m compliant, I will get there sooner. I believe in the end, it will all be worth it.”
As For Me…
Two days after getting my braces, I wanted to rip them out asap. A dull pain plagued me for about three days and became super annoying each evening. My orthodontist bonded some thick “dots” onto my upper front molars to keep me from breaking off my bottom brackets. To compensate, I’m sending food to the very back of my mouth and only using my molars. Chewing is not only embarrassing, I feel like an absolute cow. I’m pretty sure restaurant meals will be rare over the fourteen months. And as it turned out, I needn’t have worried about my sons’ reactions. My 16-year-old didn’t even notice I had braces until two days later.
–– Gwen Dawkins