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Pass the wine, metal mouth: The whole tooth about wearing adult braces

Heat-activated nickel-titanium wires developed with help from NASA? Braces sure have changed since the go-go '80s.

Media for Medical/UIG via Getty Images

I'm 51 years old, and I wear braces. 

Some days, I almost forget I have them on. Other times, when I'm doing something outwardly grown-up, like buying wine or meeting with my daughter's fifth-grade teacher, I'm achingly aware that my teeth are sporting accessories usually seen on kids who don't remember a time before YouTube.

But I'm not alone. The American Association of Orthodontists reports that as of 2016, 28 percent of the patients being treated by its members are over 18. That's more than 1.6 million people. And I can tell you from experience that many of them have probably wondered at least once if they're too old for this.

I've been down this metal-mouthed road before. The first time I had braces, I was 13 years old, it was the 1980s and, unlike today, braces didn't even attempt to disguise what they were.

Back then, braces were silver, they couldn't be hidden, and it seemed like orthodontists weren't even trying. There were none of these clear brackets, or see-through, removable aligners, or rainbow-colored elastic bands to match your school colors. No one thought to put braces on the back of your teeth. Get real, kid.

I didn't even go to an orthodontist for my first set of braces. My regular dentist told my mother he could handle it himself. I'm not sure that's a choice an informed patient would make today. But again, 1980s.

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With my 9-year-old daughter, Kelly, on a bullet train in Japan just weeks after I got braces. Of the two of us, Kelly would seem the more appropriate age for orthodontics, but I've since learned that "appropriate" is relative.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

My teenage braces did their job. My teeth look fairly straight in my college photos and my wedding album. But I never had a retainer or any follow-up treatment. I mentally put braces in the past, with acne and algebra, and moved on.

But as the years went by, I noticed what I called an "overbite" and what I later learned was really an "overjet." In an overbite, the upper teeth overlap the lower. In an overjet, the teeth kind of lean forward. No one ever called it out to me -- thank you friends for not being jerks -- but in this age of social media, I began to hate selfies, to wonder why smiling didn't come naturally to me, and to stare at my friends' dazzling Facebook grins with envy.

It's embarrassing to write this, but I saw my overjet as a personal failure, on par with getting a cavity for not brushing. Somehow in my head, admitting that I needed orthodontic treatment was like admitting I messed up. It sounds stupid when I write it down -- it's not like I caused it by yanking my teeth apart with a crowbar -- but there it is.

I still remember how tears caught in my throat over a decade ago, the first time I asked a dentist for an orthodontist referral. I kept that little green card for probably a year -- the hygienist had casually scribbled on it, "severe overbite." My teeth weren't causing me any physical issues, but that one word, "severe," made me think I was a lost cause.

It didn't help that she also cheerily remarked that an orthodontist would probably have to break my jaw to treat my teeth. What? Am I torture-victim Theon in Game of Thrones? Eventually, I threw the card away and tried not to think about it.

You know how you can set email reminders to pop up regularly, daily or weekly or whatever? For about three years, I had a reminder that popped up every Wednesday that just said "call about ortho." And like a tired kid punching the snooze alarm, I slammed it shut and did nothing. I slept on it for literally years. Zzzzz…

soph-1

I can't believe my boss made me share this photo, but here I am in 1982, the first time I had braces. The brackets were not see-through and subtle like brackets are today. 

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

It was my husband, who also had braces in the 1980s, who actually woke me up. His top teeth are an orthodontist's dream, but a few bottom teeth are now crooked. They bothered him, but rather than ignore the issue for a decade like I did, he decided to take action immediately, simply walking into an orthodontist's office and signing up for a consultation.

He convinced me to make an appointment, and I was blown away by how different the experience was from what I had dreaded. The staff was exceptionally friendly, the office was clean, crisp and high-tech, the treatment methods today were as different from those of the 1980s as dial-up internet is from broadband. Brackets are now clear, X-rays are digital, appliances are smaller and more comfortable.

But at nearly 50, was I just too old for braces?

My treatment wasn't going to be easy. I couldn't get away with clear aligners such as Invisalign, my teeth needed more. But that early hygienist had been wrong: No one would need to break my jaw.

I did need two teeth extracted to make room for the teeth to move, and believe me, that was the worst part of this experience that's now going on two years. The teeth were healthy, solid adult teeth that did not want to be evicted, and having them pulled was one of the most unnatural and disturbing experiences I can remember.

"That was among the top 10 toughest extractions of my career," my dentist later told me. You and me both, sister.

After the extractions healed, on went the braces. My new orthodontist installed clear brackets, a huge improvement on the silver ones I had as a kid. The clunky silver wire that helped give old-school braces their train-tracks nickname is still there, yes. But in some photos, it's not clear on first glance I have anything on my teeth at all.

I'm not the only one at CNET who's worn braces as an adult. Here's Iyaz Akhtar showing off his shiny smile at Google headquarters in 2018. He's since had his braces removed.

Iyaz Akhtar

This path to a better smile ain't cheap. A spokesperson for the American Association of Orthodontists said that while her group doesn't collect information on average costs, the American Dental Association does. In a 2016 survey, that group reported that fees for comprehensive treatment of adolescents ranged from $4,978 to $6,900, and that the range for adults was slightly higher, ranging from $5,100 to $7,045.

I had to squeeze my savings to come up with a decent down payment, and there's a monthly bill similar to a car payment. My dental insurance doesn't cover any of it, and sometimes, it's a scramble to pay.

Plus, braces require more constant upkeep than I'd have given them as a teen.

I can't eat certain things, from the obvious (caramels or corn on the cob) to the surprising (certain cereals and even rice are a horror to floss out). Cleaning my teeth requires special disposable flossers that I buy online. Brackets pop loose. Wires poke me. Monthly appointments to tighten the braces leave me popping Advil and eating soup. As a teen, I probably would've dramatically thrown myself on the bed and demanded to know why my parents were putting me through this.

But I'm 51 now, and my sense of what's painful in life has been tempered by real experiences. I've lost loved ones. I've worried over biopsies. Two years of dental inconvenience doesn't make my own top 10 list of life hardships, or maybe even my top 100.

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And as promised, the braces are working. With 20 months down and about four to go, I can see that the overjet has shrunk to nearly nothing. The gaps where the extracted teeth once were have filled in. And I notice surprising changes every day. My lips now make more of a model-esque Cupid's bow, something I used to envy in Facebook photos of others. Both edges of my smile rise up evenly now. I'm slowly acquiring the look I envied in those photogenic friends, even if only I notice it.

Dr. Brent Larson, the president of the American Association of Orthodontists, and Dr. Lee Graber, secretary-general of the World Federation of Orthodontics, patiently took me through the changes in braces technology over the years, and answered all my questions about adult orthodontics.

"As long as you're alive, teeth can move," Dr. Larson said.

Dr. Graber told me his oldest orthodontics patient was 88, was delighted with his braces, and is now "still going strong into his 90s."

But it wasn't the technology changes that finally made me decide to get braces at 50. I had to cross a mental line that I honestly didn't think I could ever get myself over. And maybe you have your own mental line. It might not be braces, but it's some kind of risk that for whatever reason, is important to you. Maybe it doesn't matter to anyone else, but you think about it all the time, and wonder if you can ever force yourself to make it happen.

bracesoldnew

The braces on the left date to 1929, and feature actual gold bands on the top teeth. They're a heck of a lot less subtle than the modern braces on the right, which like mine, feature translucent brackets. Even the wires are impressive: They're heat-activated nickel-titanium wires developed with help from NASA.

American Association of Orthodontists

I read recently that Warren Buffett, the Nebraska billionaire, reportedly has three boxes on his desk -- IN, OUT and TOO HARD. Who can't relate to that? I mentally put "braces" in my TOO HARD box for years and years.

Not all life improvements are doable. Money prevents us from some. Family or job responsibilities eliminate others. But somewhere in your mental TOO HARD box, there might be a big dream you can actually accomplish.

When people would write in to Dear Abby and say they dreamed of going back to college, but worried that they'd be however-many years old when they graduated, they'd get the blunt response: "How old would you be by then if you didn't get your degree?"

The point was clear: You can keep growing and changing and improving yourself as you age, or you can get older and always regret never taking the plunge.

If you need to point to someone who discovered that it wasn't too late to make a major change in her life, you can point to me.

I'm 51 years old, and I wear braces.