Looking a little long in the tooth lately? Your gums have probably receded.

In a healthy mouth, gums fit snugly around teeth the way a sweater cuff hugs your wrist. A receding gum line is like the cuff of a worn-out sweater. It may pull away, sag or just be too short. Gum recession exposes the tooth root, boosting the risk for deep-down tooth decay along with uncomfortable sensitivity to hot and cold foods and drinks.

Half of all adults, and 88 percent of people over age 65, have signs of receding gums, according to dental researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Want to protect your pinks, or whatever’s left of them? There’s plenty you can do to prevent and manage receding gums, says Sally J. Cram, DDS, a Washington, D.C., dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association.

Related: 6 Surprising Ways to Brush Your Teeth Better

What causes receding gums

Some people can blame their vanishing gum line at least partly on their genes. Experts don’t know what percentage of “shrinking gum” cases are caused by heredity, but they do know that genes determine whether the gum tissue snuggled around your teeth is thick or thin. The thick, tough type stands up to hard brushing and gum disease better, reducing risk for receding gums. The thin, weak type is more vulnerable, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).

If your gums bleed or become sore easily, you may have the thin type and should make doubly sure to brush well, and gently.

Other causes of gum recession include a lifetime of less-than-stellar oral hygiene habits or over-aggressive brushing and poorly fitting dentures. According the ADA, having prominent tooth roots that push gums out of place is another trigger. If you’ve ever suffered an injury to your gum tissues (let’s say you accidentally caught a Frisbee with your mouth), that could lead to gum recession, too.

Some dentists have conjectured that having had braces as a kid might increase the risk of receding gums later on. But most studies haven’t borne this out.

TLC for receding gums

If your gum recession is bad enough, your dentist may recommend gum grafting surgery. A graft covers exposed tooth roots with new gum tissue and helps protect teeth from sensitivity and decay. “Your dentist may monitor the recession and tell you when he or she thinks its time for treatment,” says Cram.

Another alternative is bonding, which covers exposed roots with a tooth-colored material. Bonding may be a good option if your biggest problem is pain when eating or drinking, especially if the problem area doesn’t affect your appearance.

Short of having surgery, you can care for your gums, and protect the exposed roots of your teeth, with these strategies. They can keep the recession from getting worse and also help prevent it from happening in the first place.

Related: 7 Ways to Prevent and Treat Bad Breath

Clean, but don’t attack, your gums. If you already have receding gums, “the best homecare is good oral hygiene,” Cram says.

One major, preventable cause of a diminishing gumline is gum disease, Cram says. “You can certainly reduce the risk by brushing twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste and flossing once per day, as well as seeing your dentist for regular check-ups and cleanings,” she notes.

“Plaque that accumulates at or under the gum line causes inflammation, which leads to gum disease and recession,” she says. “Many people stay away from the gums thinking they don't want to brush them away, but this only makes the problem worse. Using a soft-bristled toothbrush, move the brush in a circular motion (sweeping down under the gum) to remove any plaque. Always brush for two minutes. And remember to floss daily. It removes the bacteria and plaque that your toothbrush can't reach.”

Brushing too hard or using a hard-bristled toothbrush could accelerate gum-loss problems, University of Pacific dental experts report in the Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice. In a University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey study of 182 people, those who brushed their teeth hard were twice as likely to have receding gums.

If you have “shrinking,” gums be careful with whitening toothpastes. “Most whitening toothpastes contain carbamide peroxide, a derivative of hydrogen peroxide, as the active ingredient that "whitens" teeth. It "bubbles" stains out of the little cracks and crevices to lighten the color of the tooth,” Cram notes. “This does not cause gum recession, but if you already have gum recession and the root is exposed, it can cause your teeth to become very sensitive to cold and hot. Some whitening toothpastes contain abrasives and can wear the tooth surface if overused.”

Combat tooth grinding. Grinding and clenching your teeth can also raise your risk, says Cram. Try to avoid this stress-induced habit during the day, and consider getting a mouth guard to wear when you sleep to lessen the effects of nighttime grinding.

Related: 4 Telltale Signs You’re Grinding Your Teeth

Take extra care if you have crooked or crowded teeth. It’s tough to keep tooth surfaces, as well as the space in between and below the gum line, clean if your teeth sit at odd angles or are extremely close together, according to the ADA. Try using a dental-floss holder if you can’t maneuver the floss between your teeth, and talk with your doctor about the best toothbrush for you.

Make sure your dentures fit right. Partial dentures that aren’t properly sized for your mouth may rub or press on gums, boosting the risk for gum trouble, the ADA warns. A British study of 146 people who wore partial dentures found a higher risk for gum recession. Your dentist can adjust your dentures.

In addition to making sure dentures fit right, be sure to keep up with brushing and flossing. The British researchers say a lack of good oral hygiene may have contributed to the problem.

Related: Open Wide! What Your Mouth Is Telling You About Your Health

Sari Harrar is an award-winning health, medicine and science journalist whose work appears in Dr. Oz The Good Life magazine, Good Housekeeping, O--Oprah Magazine, Organic Gardening and other publications.