RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Speaking of drugstores, it's time for Your Health. These days, the making of a young smile can go beyond whitening your teeth. For those who have the means and the inclination, cosmetic dentists offer subtler improvements such as lengthening or reshaping your teeth.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: I've always been a people watcher. So of course I notice the difference between an old face and a younger face. But this week I have caught myself catching slightly too long glimpses of people's mouths, trying to see how much of their upper teeth are showing. It goes back to what dentist Dan Deutsch told me in his Washington office just a few days ago.
Dr. DAN DEUTSCH (Dentist): One of the things that makes you look older is every decade over the age of 30, you show a millimeter less of your front teeth. So you could see, this gives someone an old...
AUBREY: Wait, wait. Hold on. Why is that?
Dr. DEUTSCH: Well, first of all, everything sags a little bit. You know, the elastic tissues in your upper lip aren't exactly the same.
AUBREY: So as gravity pulls its weight, more of the bottom teeth show. Deutsch says, without naming names, look at the presidential candidates.
Mr. DEUTSCH: The ones that look younger, when they're talking and smiling, you'll see their front teeth. And the ones that look older, you'll see as they're talking and they're smiling, you'll see mostly their lower teeth.
AUBREY: There is a way to reverse the older look, or at least slow down the inevitable. He shows me photos of a recent patient who opted for porcelain veneers on her front teeth, making them slightly longer.
Mr. DEUTSCH: This is a young look. I gave her back a young look by just giving her the right length. You know, so - and this makes people feel better about themselves.
AUBREY: Another of Deutsch's patients, Alison Smith, says her parents' generation was mostly concerned with just keeping their teeth from falling out.
Ms. ALISON SMITH: I think we all have higher expectations. And as much as we take care of our, you know, our hair and our skin and do all of those things to sort of make ourselves look better, your teeth are an important of that.
AUBREY: Smith says at 53 she is not aiming for perfection or a Hollywood look. Mostly, she wants her teeth straight. They used to be. She had braces as a teenager. But one of the other bummers of aging is that the teeth, it turns out, have a good memory.
Orthodontist Garrett Djeu explains there are tiny fibers that connect teeth to bone in the mouth.
Mr. GARRETT DJEU (Orthodontist): Those fibers tend to want to pull the teeth back to where they came from. And so that's why you commonly get relapse.
AUBREY: To solve the problem, one company has popularized invisible braces called Invisalign. They're transparent plastic molds like retainers, and this is what Alison Smith has opted for. Over the next six months, she'll get a new retainer every 10 days or so, each one pushing her teeth a little closer to being straight. She's onto her second retainer this week.
Ms. SMITH: When I first put them in, it was sort of a couple of days of Advil, just to get used to it.
AUBREY: Clear braces are hugely popular, but there's not a lot of research to demonstrate the success rate of Invisalign. Orthodontist Garrett Djeu did do a small study comparing Invisalign to traditional braces.
Mr. JEW: Invisalign works very well in certain types of cases.
AUBREY: But not for buck teeth, overbites or crossbites. He found it is good at closing small gaps and correcting mildly crowded teeth.
For dentists, the ability to straighten teeth is a big draw. But patients also pay top dollar to get a beautiful, luminescent white smile.
Thanks to innovations in ceramics, 42-year-old Andrea Johnson is getting a crown on her front tooth that looks absolutely real. Johnson watches through a mirror as Deutsch's staff ceramicist paints the porcelain to add subtle bits of color.
Mr. DEUTSCH: It made a big difference. So now you see the difference between...
Ms. ANDREA JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. It looks great.
Mr. DEUTSCH: It looks great, right?
Ms. JOHNSON: Looks great.
AUBREY: The only thing that hurts, Andrea says, is the cost.
And what is the price tag?
Ms. JOHNSON: For just the tooth, it's about two grand. Now, imagine if you had to do a couple of them, which I don't, thank God.
AUBREY: The cost of veneers can also run a couple thousand dollars per tooth, and invisible braces range for about two to 6,000.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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