When your teeth bite the dust, life becomes a series of indignities

The toothless person’s chin rises up to their nose, just like the profile of a witch in a Hallowe’en mask, writes Terry Prone

When your teeth bite the dust, life becomes a series of indignities

EASTER is a good time for the edentulous, because chocolate, as well as being delicious, melts in the mouth and requires no chewing. Chewing is beyond the edentulous. The most they can do is give something a good gumming.

Not that many people admit to being edentulous, not least because the word is not common currency. Instead, we talk of people being toothless, if we talk of the topic at all, which most of the time we don’t, because those of us who are edentulous are mortified about it.

Why wouldn’t we be, given the tradition in the old Blackpool postcards of false teeth in a glass of water beside a bed? Low humour is great, as long as you’re not the target.

Hence, when a friend and former client asked me to write the foreword for his book on dental implants, I had doubts, since it would require me to confess, in public, to one of the most shaming and embarrassing conditions known: Having no teeth.

Admittedly, I have four teeth of my very own, but who will respect me for having four teeth at the back of an otherwise edentulous mouth?

The title of the book didn’t help, either. It’s called The Dental Amputee and it’s by David Harris. It’s a paperback, with a greeny cover with — yes — false teeth floating in a glass. It’s in all good bookshops now, complete with my foreword, because I gave in out of gratitude.

You might think that describing someone who has lost all their teeth as a dental amputee is a little dramatic, but, whether you look through the lens of personal experience or statistics, that is an understatement.


Although my own natural teeth were nothing special, they did me fine until the day my car decided to take on another, much bigger car, head on (or teeth to teeth, it you want to apply analogous terminology) on a big main road and at a fair speed.

My car folded like tinfoil, which did me no end of damage. Half a second post-impact, my face hit the steering wheel, rearranging my bones and removing or destroying most of my teeth.

Escaping from hospital many weeks later, I embarked on a programme of dental refurbishment that was about as effective as a one-bar heater in a home suffering from rising damp.

Crowns were needed, so I got crowns. Lovely, they were. Shiny and impressive. Until the day when, in a consultation with the then CEO of An Post, I stressed a point with an explosive consonant that shot one of the crowns at him at about 100kph. The unintended target, because he was into military stuff, expertly ducked the white bullet.

Now, let me tell you something that you don’t need to know. It is possible to retrieve and reinsert a dental crown in the middle of a high-level meeting, but the impact on the authority of the wearer is not good, especially when the client keeps breaking down into helpless laughter.

The other part of dental refurbishment was a partial denture that had immediate and lasting bad results. I found myself with a lisp so challenging that I sorted out sentences in advance of giving voice to them, to avoid words I knew ‘The Partial’ didn’t like. I had grown to think of it in capital letters: The Partial. A bit like The Edge, if less popular.

‘Hi, I’m Terry Prone and I would like to introduce you to “The Partial”.’ ‘The Partial’ had a life and a dance of its own. It also had food preferences. Forget raw apples, for starters. I ended up living on cous cous, which delivered anaemia and related health horrors.

In common with most people who have full or partial false teeth, I dreaded having to go into hospital for an operation, because the one thing surgery under a general anaesthetic demands is removing false teeth before the patient is wheeled into the operating theatre.You then have to answer the anaesthetist’s questions using a gummy mouth.

Eventually, someone talked to me about dental implants, and gave me information about a Swedish professor, Per-Ingvar Brånemark, who discovered that titanium, unlike all other metals, didn’t get rejected by human bone, but rather was embraced by it.

This allowed, for the first time, the implantation of structures into the jaw bone that could sustain false teeth that would never have to be taken out, that were, in fact, as permanent and serviceable as original, natural teeth (if not more permanent and serviceable).

I went to be examined as a prospect for the surgery, which, at that time, was expensive and time-consuming. It was, nevertheless, worth it, and not just because of the return of the right to eat a raw apple without having to cut the damn thing into tiny slices. The lisp went away, as did the urge to put a hand in front of one’s mouth when laughing or talking.

Some of the benefits of the move from dental amputee status, while profound, were not immediately noticeable.

One of the things that teeth do is work the bone beneath them. With every bite and chew, teeth invigorate the jaw bone, so that it continues to replenish itself. Take away working teeth and replace them with something that sits on the surface of the gum without any relationship to the underlying bone, and that bone, left idle, immediately, if slowly and subtly, begins to erode.

It shrinks away, year on year, until the toothless person’s chin rises up towards their down-ward pointing nose, just like the profile of a witch in a Hallowe’en mask.

The end result is that the edentulous person quickly looks much older than their years. Nor are their looks going to be improved, or made more youthful, by the dietary limitations imposed by false teeth, the wearers of which tend to shy away from meat, from fresh fruit and vegetables and to opt, instead, for sliced bread, potatoes and soft, sugary snacks.

Edentulous older people don’t just look older. They have greatly increased chances of poor health, because of what they eat.

SITTING in Prof Harris’s waiting room for a post- implant check-up, I found myself in a celebratory conversation with another woman who was so thrilled with her implants that she confided they had restored her sex life, after a 10-year gap during which she had been too embarrassed by her false teeth to engage in intimacy with her husband.

Good dental hygiene, fluoride in the water supply, and safer driving mean that fewer people, these days, become dental amputees. The good news for those who find themselves toothless is that implants are now a cost-effective life-changer.


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