Let's Talk Medicine
Source: Claudia Hammond / BBC Health
The phrase “long in the tooth” comes from the practice of gauging a horse’s age by the length of its teeth. Nineteenth century horse-traders were not a particularly trustworthy bunch, so a wise buyer would often check inside the animal’s mouth. If the teeth looked long it meant its gums had already receded, suggesting the potential purchase might be older than claimed. This might have served people well when it came to buying horses, but what about humans?
Gingival recession, as it’s formally known, is more common amongst the elderly. A US study of almost 10,000 people found that 38% of people aged 30-39 had some degree of the condition, compared with 71% in the 50-59 age group, and 90% for those aged between 80-90. However that doesn’t mean ageing in itself is the cause. It’s a long process that can start in your teens, and one that can be triggered by various factors.
In some cases, there is nothing people can do to reduce their chances of developing the condition. Some people inherit thin and fragile gums which recede more easily. Others have teeth which are overcrowded or stick out, meaning that there’s not enough jawbone to cover the root of the tooth.