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Figures from the American Association of Orthodontists indicate a marked increase in the number of adult patients in recent years.

Several years ago, lawyer Mike Kelly, a 55-year-old from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., decided to relive his teenage years. But it wasn't high school dances and football practices he took up. Rather, Kelly decided to get braces — again.

"I needed to do something with my teeth. My bottom ones were crooked and every time I looked in the mirror that's what I saw."

So Kelly visited an orthodontist and invested in top and bottom braces to line up his teeth properly.

As a teenager, Kelly had worn braces for three years. "Back then, my braces were very obvious — metal on my teeth with metal tension bands. My adult ones were the same type, but you couldn't see them as much because the part on my teeth was clear plastic."

Kelly is just one of thousands of post-40 adults flocking to orthodontists to straighten their teeth. Gordie Organ, the president of the Canadian Association of Orthodontists, says, "Loads of older people are getting braces. At least 35 per cent of my practice is adults, and that's people in their 40s, 50s and 60s."

The most recent figures from the American Association of Orthodontists say there were more than 62,000 orthodontic patients in Canada in 2004, with an increase in adult patients of 37 per cent between 1994 and 2004. There was also an increase in the number of men seeking treatment.

There were more than 62,000 orthodontic patients in Canada in 2004, with an increase in adult patients of 37 per cent between 1994 and 2004. —American Association of Orthodontists

One man who gave the orthodontic industry a huge boost was actor Tom Cruise when he started sporting clear braces several years ago. Laughs Organ, "You definitely hear his name mentioned a lot in the office. People figure if it's good for him, it's good for me. [TV's] Ugly Betty [character] has had the same effect."

Metal-mouth alternatives

Most people don't go for the Ugly Betty look, though, and choose aesthetic braces that do the job quickly and well. Toronto orthodontist Dr. Bruno Vendittelli says there are four types of braces to choose from - traditional ones made of metal or ceramic, clear (which 50 per cent of his adult patients choose), inside or lingual braces that go on the back surface of the teeth, and Invisalign braces that are removed for eating and brushing teeth.

If a patient is trying to decide between veneers and braces, Organ says braces are better. "You don't have to shave down the teeth. Veneers are like an extreme makeover thing. You look better but they are not necessarily any better for your mouth."

Patients aren't just choosing braces for cosmetic reasons, either. Organ says often adults have to replace missing teeth and have other teeth repositioned before they can get braces. Others have malocclusion - problems with their bite — which causes their teeth to deteriorate.

Winnipeg project manager Glen Knapp, 43, is one of those. "I was grinding my teeth and my overbite was getting worse. I'd always had a gap between my front teeth, so the braces started out correcting my bite but it ended up being a cosmetic change as well."

Knapp's only regret? "I just got the basic braces. I wish I'd had different colours."

A number of older people jumping on the braces' bandwagon now did not have the opportunity 30 or 40 years ago. Says Organ, "Maybe they grew up in a family with too many kids, or a small community where no orthodontics were available, and there was no insurance back then. Now that they're making their own money and they have a nice insurance plan, they're deciding they're going to do something for themselves."   Wendy Martens, 48, a Winnipeg special-needs teacher, was inspired by her daughter. "I gave my daughter braces and thought how great she looked, so I decided to do it for myself."

Caveats

It wasn't as easy as Martens thought it would be, though.

"I wasn't prepared for the pain," she says. "You can't even bite into a banana at some stages. Also, I have elastics on now, which brings the bite together. That's probably the worst part. You spit like a camel, you can't talk clearly. All I get all day long is … what?"

The financial aspect is definitely a consideration, too. Traditional braces can cost up to $8,000. Invisalign braces range from $7,000 to  $9,000 and lingual braces range from $9,500 to $13,000.

Treatment takes time, too, ranging from about nine months to two and a half years.

Then there are the "extras." Patients often start off with just braces, but once their teeth are straight, they tend to go for other enhancements. People often have their teeth whitened, or get crowns or veneers.

And braces aren't for everyone. Organ says orthodontics may not be possible for people taking medication for osteoporosis, for example, because bone changes for these patients are more restrictive and their teeth don't move as readily.

Once the braces are off, Kelly still needs to wear a night-time retainer to keep his teeth in place, as well as permanent band on his lower teeth. Most people wear small wires bonded to the upper and lower teeth augmented with a removable retainer worn at night.

Taking the braces' step is a bit like travelling back in time. Kelly admits it felt a little "'teenagey" to be doing it because there were so many teenagers when he showed up for appointments.

Glen Knapp agrees, and muses that he was the only one at the orthodontist without a parent.

However, each is happy with the outcome. Martens advises anyone considering getting their teeth straightened to go ahead and not let age be a deterrent. "I'm 48 now, but I'll have the best looking teeth in the lawn bowling league at the old folks' home."

The author is a Toronto-based freelance writer.